A recent sexual harassment case shows that all businesses need to have a safe and healthy workplace culture. 

Businesses sometimes lack the resources to support someone who is claiming sexual harassment and can also lack the resources to look into the allegations. 

A Brisbane based solicitor who owned and operated his own small practice (only hiring two to three people at a time) was order to pay $170,000 in damages by the Federal Circuit Court of Australia (FCC) to his former paralegal who suffered a psychiatric injury after he subjected her to months of sexual harassment. 

The paralegal began working for the solicitor in May 2015. The solicitor thought the paralegal was attractive and wanted to be in a sexual relationship with her and expressed as much via persistent emails.

The solicitor also knew a great deal about the paralegal’s personal life which he used as a way to encroach on her and frame within several emails that he knew her very well and “felt 100 per cent comfortable” with her.

“This is a very grave exploitation of that relationship,” says FCC Judge Salvatore Vasta.

The paralegal had moved to Brisbane so her child could be close to her ex with whom she had to enter into mediation. The solicitor offered his legal assistance with that and asked the paralegal to assist him in a family law matter in Sydney. He suggested they stay with his brother in Sydney and she could have her own room. Clearly uncomfortable, she planned to bring her son with her. 

The paralegal’s mediation didn’t go the way she wanted, and it seems the solicitor used this to both express sympathy and highlight how much he did for her. 

When the two went to Sydney for the different legal matter, the paralegal’s son did not come with them, but a mattress was still set up on the floor next to her bed. When she came out of the shower she saw the solicitor on the mattress dressed only in underpants. He would not leave the room unless she gave him a hug. After this incident, the paralegal became more vocal about how uncomfortable the solicitor was making her. In retaliation, the solicitor threatened her position at the company.

The FCC found this case to be textbook sexual harassment. 

“At its core, sexual harassment is a social practice of enforced inequality that demeans individuals on the basis of sex”, said Vasta when delivering his decision.

 “The Court finds, unequivocally, that the conduct of the [solicitor] is the very conduct that the law of sexual harassment seeks to eliminate.” 

Since the solicitor was also the business owner, there is no way he would bring in an outside person to investigate his own behaviour. But that doesn’t mean employees don’t have options.

The fact of the matter is that the owner of the business wasn’t going to conduct an investigation on himself – someone else would have to. As the proprietor is being accused then there needs to be a plan in place to send the report of findings to someone other than the accused. That could be a board member, a business partner, a lawyer, etc. 

In order for the investigation to have a good outcome the organisation involved needs to be committed to making a safer workplace. It’s not enough to just bring someone in whenever there’s a problem.

The bottom line is that if you bring expertise into the organisation you need to know you’re not outsourcing responsibility. 

Small businesses may need to accept responsibility that they have failed if they don’t have any policies, procedures or training around sexual harassment. 

Organisations need to acknowledge and insist to all staff that any sexual harassment is not acceptable behaviour, and it expects them to call it out when they see it. 

If someone is acting in a manner that could cause psychological injury then removing that risk from the workplace means you’ve helped make it safer – that’s always the desirable outcome.

For further support & advice contact EAP Assist.