By Robby Magyar

Since the #MeToo movement went viral in 2017, we’ve seen sexual harassment and assault survivors publicly expose perpetrators to hold them accountable, demand systematic policy change, call for a greater commitment from employers to address accusations of sexual misconduct and to empower more people, including women, the young and vulnerable people, to come forward with their experiences of sexual violence or harassment.

Over the last four years, there have been countless reports of sexual misconduct in the Australian media. One of the most notable was, in February 2021, when Brittany Higgins and four other women accused a former Australian Federal Parliamentary staffer of rape.

In the months that followed, female staffers and politicians have detailed their experiences of bullying, sexual harassment, and sexual assault within the Commonwealth Parliament. Former MPs Kate Ellis and Julia Banks released books exposing the sordid behaviour of men within the parliamentary triangle, Liberal backbencher Lucy Wicks detailed her personal experiences of mistreatment by her colleagues on the floor of Parliament, and staffers from across the political spectrum staged protests within the halls of Parliament to demand their employers do more to stamp out the culture of power plays, abuse, and silence.

As Susan Ley put it during the final sitting of the House: “for so many women, this has been the most difficult of years. For women in this workplace, it has been a year like no other.” We’ve seen this conduct arise time and again through multiple complaints of sexual violence and harassment.

These reports ultimately culminated in the Australian Government, with support from both the Labor Opposition and Crossbench, establishing the Independent Review into Commonwealth Parliamentary Workplaces on 5 March 2021. Led by the Australian Human Rights Commission and Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins, the final report was released on 30 November 2021.

The report details some damning statistics regarding the state of employment conditions within the Australian Government, including that:

  • 37 per cent of people in Commonwealth Parliamentary workplaces have personally experienced bullying, with 65 per cent of the most recent bullying events occurring within Parliamentary precincts and Parliament House; and
  • 33 per cent of people have personally experienced sexual harassment in Commonwealth Parliamentary workplaces, with 54 per cent of incidents having occurred within Parliament House.

Why does this matter to businesses and employers?

The review into Commonwealth Parliament comes at a time of shifting values and expectations in terms of gender equality, safety and respect in our communities and workplaces, and as the name suggests, the aim is for the review to set the standard for how employers in positions of power should address sexual violence and harassment in the workplace.

It should remind employers that all workplaces must respond to these changing tides and promote a safe and respectful workplace culture, helping to support and retain their employees who may have experienced or be at risk of experiencing bullying, sexual harassment, and sexual assault, but to also reduce reputation and legal risks that stem from inaction. The complaints raised in respect of Federal Parliament have shown that this type of sexual misconduct can infect any workplace, in any industry.

Moving forward

There have been considerable changes to the approach the Fair Work Commission (FWC) is taking to instances of workplace bullying, sexual harassment, and sexual assault in 2021, with the introduction of new powers to prevent and respond to sexual harassment because of the Sex Discrimination Commissioner’s Respect@Work recommendations.

We reported on these changes when they took effect in November 2021, read our detailed analysis of these changes here.

These changes, including the ‘anti-sexual harassment’ orders the FWC can now make, are a significant step towards addressing the harm that bullying, sexual harassment and sexual assault can have on individuals and workplaces.

However, these amendments are designed to be reactionary.

Businesses should also consider what steps they can take to reduce the risk of sexual violence or harassment occurring in the first place, including:

  • Implementing policies in line with relevant legislation that set clear standards of behaviour for all workers (including contractors, volunteers, subcontractors, and labour-hire staff);
  • Employing leaders in the business who display those standards from the outset;
  • Improving employment structures, conditions, and systems to reduce and correct power imbalances;
  • Clearly communicating social expectations at work and stamping out the ‘work hard, play hard’ and ‘boys-club’ cultures;
  • Promoting diversity and inclusivity in the workplace, with respectful behaviour as a baseline requirement;
  • Providing wellbeing programs to ensure employees feel physically and psychologically well and safe in the workplace;
  • Engaging employees in best-practice training and competency courses;
  • Encouraging employees to report instances of bullying, sexual harassment, and sexual assault, and providing mechanisms for them to do so; and
  • Holding perpetrators accountable through visible consequences for misconduct, namely termination where appropriate.

For comprehensive advice and guidance on how to best navigate this area or to ensure your workplace is compliant, please contact the team at HR Assured.

Robby Magyar is a Workplace Relations Consultant at FCB and HR Assured who relishes the opportunity to assist businesses in the best practice approach to managing employees and compliance concerns. He has a particular interest in making employment law and human resources digestible for our clients.