The necessity to stamp out harassment in the workplace made the press again recently with a report in ABC News about allegations of an unsafe working environment at Latrobe City Council.
The incident that sparked the allegations was a council meeting in August 2021, where it was alleged one of the councillors made abusive and threatening statements. An independent panel that investigated the circumstances of the meeting heard that the General Manager resigned as a direct result of the meeting and other interactions with the councillor. The General Manager was reported to have told the panel that she could “no longer ensure the safety of relevant council staff in performing their roles”.
This now very public incident follows on from similar concerns made about the conduct of federal parliamentarians after allegations were made by Brittany Higgins. As a result of the investigation into those allegations conducted by senior public servant Stephanie Foster, an independent body has been set up to deal with serious incidents in parliamentary workplaces.
Further, a requirement for all parliamentarians to receive education and training in respectful workplace relationships and responding to sexual harassment was implemented.
The Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins, in a separate review, also recommended annual training be mandatory.
Reminder for all workplaces
The Latrobe City Council matter is an important reminder that no organisation should be complacent and assume that harassment couldn’t happen in their workplace.
So, what steps do you need to take?
The minimum is to have a workplace policy that clearly sets out that harassment is unlawful and will not be tolerated.
Importantly, as can be seen from the steps recommended for parliamentarians, you must ensure that every person in your organisation, particularly those with seniority, are trained in the policy and clearly understand what conduct constitutes harassment.
A clear process available for victims and observers of harassment to be able to raise a complaint to an independent person must be implemented. This was lacking for federal parliamentarians and the staff they engaged.
Finally, prompt action must be taken in response to any complaint. An investigation must be impartial and confidential. If disciplinary action is warranted following the outcome of the investigation, it should be implemented.