The Australian Human Rights Commission (Commission) has recently launched an inquiry into sexual harassment in Australian workplaces (Inquiry). It seems that the ‘watershed’ moment that the #MeToo campaign was hailed as, has indeed driven the momentum to keep the issue alive and for meaningful action to come from it.
There can be little argument that a culture that tolerates, condones or rewards inappropriate conduct or the wrong behaviours creates real and significant risk for an organisation – from a legal, commercial and reputational perspective. It is essential, both at Board and executive level, that there is an awareness and understanding of the organisation’s culture or cultures and the risks that arise through such a culture and, most importantly, that steps are taken to mitigate or remove those risks. Indeed, organisational culture and behaviours that are rewarded, encouraged or ignored, have been a key focus in the Financial Services Royal Commission and the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
This focus is now moving to sexual harassment in the workplace. As Kate Jenkins, the Sex Discrimination Commissioner said, when she announced the Inquiry, which is believed to be a world first:
“These personal accounts [of men and women telling their stories of sexual harassment] have made clear the devastating impact sexual harassment can have on individuals’ lives, as well as the significant costs to business and the community. This spotlight on sexual harassment has turned the tide and created a clear and unprecedented appetite for change.”
How will the Inquiry operate?
The fourth national survey into workplace sexual harassment is currently being undertaken. It is expected that the results will be published in August. It is now 6 years since the Commission last undertook a survey and it is anticipated that the reported instances of sexual harassment in the workplace will have risen significantly. The Commission will analyse these results as a cornerstone of the Inquiry and will build on this by:
- conducting a public consultation in major capital cities (and some regional towns) later this year (likely October);
- inviting and reviewing submissions from interested parties; and
- undertaking in depth research on sexual harassment.
It is expected that the Inquiry will take 12 months. The Inquiry will ultimately produce a report (Report) making recommendations to address sexual harassment in Australian workplaces. It is to be anticipated that the Report will break down their findings into an industry focus, identifying what the drivers are in certain industries that make sexual harassment more prevalent than others. The Commission will not be investigating or making findings about individual allegations of sexual harassment. Its focus will be on systemic issues in Australian workplaces.
More information on the Inquiry and our planned approach can be found here.