Creating safer workplaces: An update

Group of young multiracial creative people working together in modern office.

The role of leaders in creating safer workplaces was one of the issues put under the spotlight at a Respect@Work Council forum held in Sydney last week.

Facilitated by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins, the Chair of the Council, the forum highlighted the work undertaken by the Respect@Work Council following the review by the Australian Human Rights Commission into Commonwealth parliamentary workplaces that outlined 55 recommendations designed to stamp out workplace sexual harassment.

Opening the forum, Commonwealth Attorney General The Hon Mark Dreyfus QC MP expressed his gratitude “to the individuals – particularly women – who have spoken up about the scourge of sexual harassment in the workplace.”

He announced he would work closely with Minister for Women, Senator Katy Gallagher and Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, Tony Burke to deliver on the Government’s commitment to implement all the Respect@Work recommendations.

He announced the Sex Discrimination Act will be amended to include a positive duty on employers to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace. The Fair Work Act will also be amended to explicitly prohibit sexual harassment, to enable unions or other organisations to bring sex discrimination legal action on behalf of complainants and to establish costs protections for complainants.

Governance Institute expressed in-principle support for the positive duty in our submission on some of the legislative changes.

Given that approximately 92% of sexual harassment claims are work related, the importance of a well-designed workplace complaints system was discussed in detail at the forum.

When designing a workplace complaints system three things to do are:

  • Take it seriously – make sure there is a nominated contact person
  • Be transparent – about how the process works and give complainants agency
  • Listen to what you hear back from complainants to try and improve your processes for the future.

The importance of it being safe for bystanders to raise issues in workplaces was also highlighted.

The crucial role of leadership in stopping and preventing workplace sexual harassment was also discussed. Steps that leaders can take include:

  • Ensuring accountability at all levels of the organisation
  • Ensuring transparency at all levels
  • Active prevention – moving from a risk mitigation/ cost benefit approach to active prevention.

We also heard an update on the support services available to those who have experienced workplace sexual harassment as well as the importance of a trauma informed approach in these situations. There were also updates on guidance such as that developed by Safe Work Australia including guidance for small business, and the Fair Work Commission Sexual harassment benchbook.

How Governance Institute is taking action:

The landmark Respect@Work final report recommended that Governance Institute develop education and training for boards and company officers on good governance practice in relation to gender equality and sexual harassment.

In response we re-launched our Workplace Health and Safety Due Diligence short course to ensure directors, company secretaries and senior managers are up-to-speed their increased responsibilities, the management of psychological risks as well as physical, the impact of breaching WHS laws, and the steps organisations must take to be compliant.

And building on the success of our inaugural women-exclusive Effective Director Course, we are pleased to be continuing this course in 2022 with our next session commencing later this month.

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