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Air traffic controllers shine light on sexual harassment and workplace bullying – how all employers must respond

News today that two air traffic controllers are seeking damages from their government-owned employer, Airservices Australia, for alleged workplace discrimination and bullying from male colleagues is further reinforcement that we have a long way to go in stemming such destructive workplace practices.

Inappropriate behaviours reported by the women who are long serving employees include the email distribution of pornography by a manager, which continued even after a number of staff complained and the manager was warned by a superior to desist “because the last thing you need is that stuff to get into the wrong hands”. 

On another occasion a manager allegedly told one of the women – pregnant at the time – that her pregnancy did not suit the roster and that he had a “coat hanger in the back of his car”.  When she complained about the comment, she was allegedly told the manager was “having a bad day.”

Jacki Macdonald and Kirsty Fletcher have worked with Airservices Australia for 18 years and 13 years tenure respectively. The women invoked HR procedures in 2008 but claim there had been no response for 18 months, prompting them to begin action in the Federal Court of Australia seeking damages for current and future loss of earnings.

Following on from the resignation of David Jones CEO Mark McInnes, this action is an indication that sexual harassment is prevalent and claims are on the rise – in fact the Australian Human Rights Commission’s annual report shows that sexual discrimination complaints are up 25% on the previous year.  Shining a light on the issue appears to be having the effect of encouraging more women to come forward and share their experiences – and as difficult as this can be for employers to manage, perhaps it’s the only way we will see the cultural change required to stamp out forever such practices.

The question for many employers is how they can ensure they don’t suffer the same fate as high profile claims that have impacted David Jones, Airservices Australia and PwC in the Christina Rich settlement?

My advice is to really use these cases to highlight the reputational impact and potential financial impact to your organisation of sexual harassment claims.  If I was the boss, I’d be communicating with each and every one of my leaders and business managers on each and every occasion that such a claim arises.  I would demonstrate that this is a top priority issue by:

  1. Providing links to media articles and encouraging my team to read the revolting details of each of the claims
  2. Encouraging discussion within teams about how such claims make women and men feel
  3. Providing easy mechanisms that enable employees of the organisation to report any unbecoming behaviours
  4. Making an example of people who engage in sexual harassment in the workplace or impact negatively on my workplace culture.  There must be a zero tolerance policy on this and there must be sacrificial lambs.

In short, I’d be making it known that the time is up: women in Australia will no longer suffer in silence and there will be no place in your organisation for staff who put your people, reputation and culture at risk.

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