Duty of care – Sexual harassment – 1.3 million reasons to get it right
Everyone in a workplace has a duty of care to ensure that they do all that is reasonable practicable to ensure the safety of all others in the work place, including reacting to complaints of sexual harassment.
Employers have a duty of care to ensure that they take all reasonable steps to ensure that there is nothing in the workplace that could cause an employee to suffer an injury or to contract an illness this includes taking reasonable steps to eliminate and/or respond to workplace bullying, harassment and sexual harassment.
Business owners, employers and managers must ensure that they do all that they can to ensure that the duty of care is not breached as it can have serious consequences for employees and expensive consequences for employers.
Courts have found that workplace bullying, harassment and sexual harassment can lead to the development of psychological injuries such as anxiety, stress, depression, PTSD and in the worse cases lead to suicide.
The case of Mathews v Winslow Constructors (Vic) Pty Ltd  VSC illustrates a breach of duty of care in a sexual harassment matter in which the Supreme Court of Victoria has awarded an employee over $1.3 million in damages after finding that her employer was negligent in failing to provide a safe working environment and allowing her to be subjected to extensive abuse, sexual harassment and bullying by her colleagues.
Ms Kate Mathews was employed by Winslow Constructors, a large construction company specialising in civil engineering projects, as a labourer for two years. During her employment, Ms Mathews was subjected to repeated abuse, bullying and sexual harassment from Winslow employees and subcontractors.
Ms Mathews provided evidence that she endured daily sexual harassment, which included being shown pornographic material and being asked if she would do what she was being shown, being called a “spastic”, “bimbo” and “useless”, being repeatedly questioned over her sex life and having a colleague grab her hips and act out a sexual act on her.
Ms Mathews was unable to complain to her foreman as he was responsible for some of the offensive comments himself.
In July 2010 a colleague of Ms Mathews stated to her that he was “going to follow you home, rip your clothes off and rape you.” Following this comment, Ms Mathews was frightened and scared. She telephoned a person who she thought was responsible for Human Resources, with their comment being “come to my place… and we will have a drink and talk about it.”
Judge Forrest found that as a direct consequence of the bullying, abuse and harassment Ms Matthews was subjected to by employees and subcontractors of Winslow Constructors, she had suffered chronic and significant psychiatric injuries that have and will continue to diminish the quality of her life.
Judge Forrest awarded Ms Matthews $380,000 in general damages to compensate her for her psychiatric injuries and jaw injury, $283,942 for economic loss she suffered between 2010 and 2016 and $696,085 for her future loss of earning capacity until she reached retirement age of 65. The total damages awarded was $1,360,027.
Lessons for employers:
1. Don’t ignore it
2. Don’t make it worse
3. Investigate thoroughly, it would have cost a lot less that 1.3 million.
4. Ensure that your managers and HR professional are trained to deal with complaints.
5. If in doubt call an expert
The author Phil O’Brien is a highly experienced and skilled workplace investigator and trainer who can take the stress out of conducting workplace investigations and provide you and your employees with up to date a relevant training in the areas of misconduct, investigations, procedural fairness, reasonable management action, performance management, bullying & harassment and other issues facing employers and workplaces.
This is general information only. It does not replace advice from a qualified workplace investigator in your state or territory. It is recommended that should you encounter complaints in the workplace that you seek advice from a suitability qualified and experienced workplace investigator.