Saturday, May 14, 2011

Sexual harassment has been very prominent in the media this past year notwithstanding increased public, media and corporate focus on bullying. From time to time I am struck by the narrow stereotypes some people hold about sexual harassment presuming it to be about men 'hitting on' women at work. Both genders regrettably harass both genders.

The Tasmanian Anti Discrimination Tribunal has found that an existing culture of sexual banter and failure by the alleged victim, an 18 year old chef when he began there, to strongly assert himself, was inadequate justification of persistent unwelcome attention by the restaurant manager. The male apprentice chef was awarded $8000 in damages for male on male sexual harassment.

Legislation in this domain and landmark cases is quite consistent. All employees must be able to experience "quiet enjoyment of their workplace" with no unwelcome attention that offends, intimidates or humiliates whether sexual or related to an unlawful prejudice (eg their age, gender, disability).

So called custom and practice is no protection against sexual harassment. Indeed the perpetrator in this case was the restaurant manager so what are the chances this person would have established and maintained a healthy culture? The other important reminder of this case is that if one considers the unwelcome attention may cause the recipient of the attention to feel intimidated, expecting them to stand up to the perpetrator and request or demand they stop, may be unrealistic and unjust. Not being able to do so does not negate the wrongdoing. The apprentice chef in this case endured 8 months of obscene verbal comments and unwelcome physical contact. He eventually resigned but fell into depression, heavy drinking and self harm. The case further highlights the frightening vulnerability of a victim in any environment where the perpetrator is actually the boss.
Continuing to publicise the determinations of such cases is one of the best deterrents for would-be offenders who wish to protect the reputations of their businesses and a good way to promote employee rights to stick up for themselves. At times, I have given feedback to restaurant managers where I see them being courteous to a fault to customers and then bark orders at staff heading for the kitchen. They need to know that a) people notice and b) it could cost them.