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Where to draw professional boundaries

Where to draw professional boundaries

By Suzan Gencay


After-work drinks can become a dangerous environment as inhibitions are lowered and bad decisions have consequences.

Come 5.30pm bars and restaurants are filled with eager legal professionals unwinding and networking after a stressful day at work. With our efforts to be friendly comes the dilemma of where to draw professional boundaries to ensure that we can show our faces in the office the next morning. We all want to be team players, but there is nothing collegiate about sexual harassment. Awkward situations can quickly snowball into completely inappropriate behaviour. While an office romance may seem like a good idea, under a booze-induced blur it can often be difficult to judge whether the other person reciprocates your feelings.

Remaining silent about a situation which has made you uncomfortable may seem like a smart move career-wise, but failing to stand up for yourself may invoke further inappropriate conduct towards you and other colleagues. Undoubtedly, it is also likely to make it difficult for you to be happy at work and may affect your performance.

What is sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment is any unwelcome sexual behaviour that could be expected to make a person feel offended. This can include physical, oral or written acts towards a person or in their presence. You do not have to be at your workplace for this to occur – it can happen at work events like after-work drinks or your end of year party. The Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission (VEOHRC) found that the “most common conduct reported included sexually suggestive comments or jokes, intrusive questions about their private life or physical appearance, unwelcome or inappropriate physical contact, and unwelcome staring or leering”.

Almost 24 per cent of female lawyers have experienced sexual harassment while working as a lawyer or legal trainee in Victoria. This behaviour, while rarely reported, has recently made the news. A senior Melbourne lawyer made headlines when he was accused of sexual harassment by sending inappropriate graphic text and picture messages to a female colleague.

Who can experience sexual harassment?

Both men and women experience sexual harassment. It can happen to both paid employees and volunteers including article clerks and interns. Volunteers have the same rights and responsibilities as paid employees.

What can you do?

The first step in addressing sexual harassment is to speak to the person who has harassed you. If you feel like you cannot approach them and ask them to stop, try to approach your organisation’s human resources department.

If you’re unable to resolve the matter you can make a complaint to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) within 12 months from the date of the sexual harassment, or to the VEOHRC.

You can also make a complaint to the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) 12 months from the date the sexual harassment took place. You cannot pursue a case at VCAT if you decide to make a complaint to the AHRC.

If you make a complaint and are fired or your employer is treating you adversely as a result, you may be able to make an unfair dismissal claim or general protections claim. Strict time limits apply so ensure you speak to an employment lawyer as soon as possible.

Sometimes sexual harassment can also be a criminal matter. If at any time you feel unsafe, contact the police. You can make a Personal Safety Intervention Order by contacting your local Magistrates’ Court.

Sexual harassment is under no circumstances okay. You never deserve it and you should not tolerate it.

Suzan Gencay, Lawyer, St Kilda Legal Service

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