Companies failing harassment victims: ACSI

There are structural issues with the ways in which companies handle sexual harassment complaints which inherently discriminate against victims, the Australian Council of Superannuation Investors (ACSI) conference has heard.

During a session, Julia Szlakowski - a private equity specialist - recounted harrowing instances of harassment throughout her career.

One of Szlakowski's examples of harassment involved an older male colleague informing her on a work trip that she would have to share a room with him. She refused, but once they returned from the trip Szlakowski lost her position.

"For some time, I struggled with the complicated feelings that arose from the unequivocal fact I got fired for not sleeping with my boss," she said.

This particular instance occurred before Szlakowski's time at AMP Capital, where she would formally accuse Boe Pahari of sexual harassment. An independent investigation into Szlakowski's complaint against Pahari, commissioned by AMP Capital, found her accusation to be credible. However, Pahari's career would not suffer, and he went on to be promoted to chief executive of AMP Capital in Australia.

Kate Jenkins, Australian sex discrimination commissioner for the Australian Human Rights Commission, said Szlakowski's story highlights several of the systematic failures to properly address sexual harassment that exist within corporates.

"One in three Australian workers have experienced sexual harassment in the last five years," she said.

"People are at higher risk include as young people, people of migrant backgrounds, people with disabilities, LGBTI communities."

The real issue, Jenkins explained, is that currently the law requires victims to report their harassment - putting their own careers and credibility at risk in doing so. It also, unintentionally, gives companies an incentive to refute harassment claims as manager may be under pressure to keep the number of harassment claims low.

"The current system relies on victims complaining... that's how employers really are working, if they don't get a complaint, they don't think they have any sexual harassment," she said.

"Once they get a complaint, that's when they start taking action."

Ultimately, research undertaken by the Australian Human Rights Commission concluded that accountability for stamping out sexual harassment needs to start at the board level.

Jenkins said she recommends boards have expertise and training in this area, so that they can ask informed questions of management on the issue of sexual harassment.

Harassment should be a regular agenda item for boards, for example, as research shows that executive management will act in-line with board agenda items.

Counting complaints is not how a company gets an accurate depiction of sexual harassment, Jenkins said, as only 17% of harassment victims will report it. To properly tackle the issue, she suggested that companies should conduct de-identified, anonymous surveys.

These surveys should ask about specific harassment behaviours and whether workers have encountered them, rather than asking about sexual harassment broadly, as some people may not be clear on which behaviours are and are not harassment.

Jenkins is hopeful that, according to recommendations from the Human Rights Commission, the Sex Discrimination Act will be updated so that it is not only enacted once victims complain. She hopes the legislation will put positive duties on employers, rather than counting on victims to report.

The risks of sexual harassment go far beyond Australia's borders. Non-governmental organisations have flagged sexual harassment in garment factories as a source of risk, both in terms of productivity losses and reputational risks for major brands around the world.

Even as companies come to grips with identifying, managing and monitoring exposures to modern slavery in their supply chain, experts warn that it is not the only human rights risk that companies should monitor. Research from international aid organisation CARE Australia from March 2017 suggests that in Cambodia alone, sexual harassment costs employers US$89 million per year, through lost productivity costs.

Read more: Australian Human Rights CommissionAustralian Council of Superannuation InvestorsJulia SzlakowskiKate JenkinsBoe PahariSex Discrimination Act