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LIV President's Blog 2014

LIV President's Blog 2014

Geoff Bowyer, LIV President 2014 on the latest issues and topics. Read and comment.

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Sexual harassment – how to stop it happening in your office

Sexual harassment – how to stop it happening in your office

I was impressed and inspired by Victoria Police Chief Commissioner Ken Lay’s attack on members who continue to perpetuate a culture of sexual harassment within the police force. The message that this type of behavior will not be tolerated, combined with the announcement of a ‘frank and fearless’ review of sexual harassment by Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commissioner, sends a clear message that times are changing within our police force.

It made me think about our profession. Whilst we have an increasing number of young women joining our profession, we have a lamentable record of retaining young women in our workforce, as outlined in the National Attrition and Re-engagement Study (NARS) Report. There are a multitude of reasons, but undeniably the male-dominated culture of our profession is one of them and the often prevalent unconscious bias. So what can we all do to make our profession an environment that stifles those who believe that sexual harassment is acceptable behaviour?

Have a sexual harassment policy

All workplaces need a sexual harassment policy, which should include:

  • Definition of sexual harassment
  • Clear statement that sexual harassment won’t be tolerated
  • Statement that your firm will discipline or dismiss perpetrators
  • A clear procedure for making sexual harassment complaints
  • A commitment that you will investigate fully any sexual harassment complaint that you receive
  • A statement that retaliation against anyone who complains about sexual harassment will not be tolerated (it is in fact a criminal act).

Make sure staff understand the policy

Having a policy is not enough. Staff should be provided with regular training (at the LIV we do it bi-annually) that covers the sexual harassment policy, including clarification of what harassment actually is and what this behavior might look like (surprisingly, this can be a revelation for some people). It should also include an overview of what the complaints process is, so staff are comfortable to use it if they need to. Your team needs to know you are seriously committed to providing an environment where they can work safely, free of sexual harassment. If you are part of a small firm this can be addressed by urging your suburban or regional law association to book in an LIV training session.

Ensure management buy-in

Managers need their own separate training, but more than that, they need to be strong role models. This means not participating in, supporting or tolerating behavior that can be seen as an endorsement or acceptance of sexual harassment – laughing at sexist jokes and language, tolerating sexism by others in their team, or worse, turning a blind eye to sexual harassment. Managers have a responsibility to model respectful behavior that demonstrates that sexual harassment won’t be tolerated – and if they can’t, they are simply not up for the job. Old style paradigms and cultures should have no place in a 21st century workplace.

Actively monitor the workplace

Often sexual harassment can take place at a firm for a considerable time before managers realise it’s occurring. Being busy and ignorant of sexual harassment is no excuse for allowing someone to be sexually harassed on your watch. You need to actively monitor your workplace including open communication with team members (particularly young, new ones). Ask regularly if staff have any concerns and immediately investigate any suspicious behavior. Remember, sexual harassment doesn't necessarily fit stereotypes - not all victims are young women and not all perpetrators are old men. Younger men and women of all ages can be victims and perpetrators so be vigilant. And to my male readers, way too often our antennae just aren’t attuned to pick this up so getting feedback from female peers or HR staff can be very helpful.

Don’t tolerate ‘it was just a joke’

Unfortunately we’ve all probably heard the sexist jokes or pranks excused as ‘just a joke’, with anyone who didn’t go along with it being labeled as a stick in the mud. Let’s all make a commitment and have the courage to not tolerate this lame excuse any more. I’m all for humor – but I like mine to be the type where everyone can heartily laugh along. And it’s worth remembering at this time of year that your workplace is wherever your colleagues are – Christmas parties included.

Act – fast and firm

If you do receive a sexual harassment complaint, or you or your manager identify that sexual harassment may have been experienced, you need to act fast, with tact and respect. No complaint should ever be brushed off, and all situations must be handled professionally. Unless it is very clear that the alleged conduct has occurred, an independent investigation should be conducted. Having the complaint independently investigated will ensure that the issue can be dealt with swiftly and fairly - and appropriate action taken promptly.

Of course, as a profession we know better than most that failure to act on sexual harassment can result in low morale, high turn-over and even legal consequences.

But most of all, we need to act so that we can ensure that the legal profession is one where all employees feel safe and comfortable at work, and experience a successful, productive career. That’s to everyone’s benefit.

I am delighted that Victoria Police Chief Commissioner Ken Lay will be part of the panel at our White Ribbon Day lunch next Wednesday. I hope you can join us for what will be an inspiring event.

 
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