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Employee awarded $466,000 for sexual harassment claim

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The Federal Court has awarded a female employee $466,000 – being one of Australia’s largest compensatory payouts for sexual harassment. The Court found her former employer, a South Australian building giant, liable for all of the damages but left it open for the individual employees to contribute if for any reason she was unable to recover from the former employer.

During her employment as a building consultant, a work colleague had sent the employee emails propositioning her for sex while another had sent a picture of a woman performing sexual acts, which she complained about to her employer.

The employee’s employment was subsequently terminated by her employer, claiming poor work performance as the reason for termination.

The Court held that the employment was not terminated for poor work performance, but rather because she had complained about the conduct of her work colleagues.  It also held that the employer had unlawfully discriminated against her by treating her less favourably than it would have treated a man in similar circumstances.

The Court further found that the employer had failed to act upon her complaints and had inadequate systems for managing complaints of sexual harassment and sexual discrimination.

In determining the amount of compensation to award the employee, the Court found that the events in question had led to significant pain and suffering and hurt and humiliation on her behalf.  She had become withdrawn and suffered a significant impairment in her earning capacity.

Lessons for employers:

Employers can avoid liability in relation to sexual harassment if it can be shown that all “reasonable precautions” were taken to prevent the conduct in question.

What is considered a reasonable precaution will vary depending on the size and nature of the business and workplace.  As a minimum, however, employers must take the following steps:

  1. Establish written policies dealing with discrimination, bullying and harassment containing:
    • A mission statement
    • An employer manual for handling complaints
    • A grievance handling procedure

  2. The written policies must be effectively communicated to all employees, agents and contractors
  3. Regularly educate and re-educate employees, agents and contractors with regard to the policy

Author: Natalie Novak