Ahead of her address at the 2022 Australian Governance Summit, Sally Bruce GAICD says it’s a tipping point — that boards must act now to transform the conversations about sexual harassment in the workplace into action.

    Sally Bruce GAICD frankly acknowledges that talking about sexual harassment in the workplace makes many people uncomfortable. However, she believes the hush-hush nature around such conversations is problematic because it deters victims from coming forward — and creates a culture of impunity.

    “Typically, there’s a lot of leaning out on this topic, rather than leaning in,” says Bruce, COO and CFO of employee experience platform CultureAmp and on the board of Chief Executive Women (CEW), which represents Australia’s senior women leaders. “Sexual harassment is a delicate matter and a bit taboo, which makes it hard to have the first conversation. So instead, we are uncomfortably living with it.”

    Top-down change a must

    The statistics are sobering — two in five women and one in four men have been sexually harassed in the workplace in the past five years, according to a survey by the Australian Human Rights Commission. The likelihood of experiencing sexual harassment is higher if a person is an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, under 30 years of age, BIPOC (black, Indigenous or a person of colour) or in an insecure or heavily gendered work environment. “The statistics are just unacceptable,” says Bruce. “If anything else was impacting the health, wellbeing and productivity of our workforce in the same way, we would be jumping on it.”

    Bruce believes part of the reason why sexual harassment remains stubbornly prevalent is because it is dealt with in a reactive, complaints- based way. She advocates a shift to prevention by creating transparent, proactive environments where organisations have an obligation to establish a workplace safe from sexual harassment. “The current approach can make people feel they’re not going to be heard, believed or safe,” she says. “We need to create a different pathway so those conversations can happen more easily.”

    Education programs should focus on teaching executives and boards how to have difficult conversations, in addition to all other members of an organisation. Programs should focus on how to identify sexual harassment and create a clear understanding of the mutual obligations and expectations in the workplace.

    Exposing issues

    The release of two external reviews into prominent Australian workplace cultures have dramatically highlighted the toxic consequences of failures in leadership, systems and processes, the abuse of power and the organisational risks — and revealed an appetite to accelerate cultural reform.

    In February, Rio Tinto made public Everyday Respect: Report into Workplace Culture at Rio Tinto a forensic external report that concluded sexual harassment, bullying and racism was endemic across the company’s global workforce.

    In November 2021, Set the Standard: Report on the Independent Review into Commonwealth Parliamentary Workplaces, by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins GAICD, exposed bullying and sexual harassment, and revealed similar failures of leadership, failures in systems and processes, and deficits in management capability.

    Bruce commends both organisations for seeking to understand the workplace experience of their people and for transparency in sharing the findings. “This is an important step toward setting new expectations and driving necessary culture change,” she says. “I hope we’re now seeing the conviction to stay the course to change the cultural and organisational norms that have let workplace sexual harassment go unchecked for so long. We must act now, and remain vigilant, to put in place the systems, structures and expectations to eliminate sexual harassment and violence in all its forms.”

    The review is part of the work being undertaken by Rio Tinto’s Everyday Respect task force, launched in March 2021 to better understand, prevent and respond to harmful behaviours in the workplace. It will inform work being carried out to improve how the company prevents and responds to discrimination and unacceptable workplace behaviour.

    Ending vague exits

    Bruce says that effective cultural change is always led from the top, and that board and management have a critical role to play in creating a safe work environment. “A board and executive team need to keep those conversations alive. It’s not enough to have the conversation once. You’ve got to keep having it, keep it front of mind and keep up the messaging.”

    Bruce recommends delving into the resources available on the Respect website created by CEW. It includes a tool for directors to prevent and respond to sexual harassment, which was developed by the AICD. The tool contains a series of practical and policy questions directors should consider in developing a new framework to prevent and respond to sexual harassment at work.

    Bruce says a number of practices need to be changed, citing the complaints handling process and exit procedures as prime examples. At the moment, non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) are often entered into as part of a settlement of a sexual harassment claim in Australia. They typically prohibit all parties from talking about the complaint and its outcome.

    “For a long time, when someone has exited the workplace on the basis of their behaviour, the farewell has been crafted in a way that indicates they’re leaving for family reasons or a change of career,” says Bruce. “We have to name these things for what they are. A company could instead state that the departure is the result of an investigation into conduct and [the person] is no longer continuing there, based on a breach of the code.”

    Bruce believes this approach would signal to the victim that they have been heard and the organisation takes such matters seriously. “When these complaints are escalated to action, they are often quite dated. Most instances of sexual harassment have gone on for more than 12 months. If you can create a pathway where there’s a belief it will be safe to raise your concerns, it creates an environment where perpetrators understand the severity of their actions and the consequences.” 

    She notes a shift in the number of organisations handling complaints in a more efficient, transparent way by removing confidentiality agreements. “It has to be respectful and not defamatory,” says Bruce. “But when there is a negotiated exit that comes with a confidentiality agreement, it puts the victim at risk of not being able to tell their story and heal. There’s definitely a movement to change how we think about it when this occurs.”

    Creating genuine change

    Another change Bruce wants to see is more diverse representation for women in leadership roles at Australian corporates.

    “The evidence is really clear that heavily gendered workplaces and workplaces that are very hierarchical have a higher prevalence of sexual harassment,” she says. “Having more balanced workforces from a gendered perspective would play a big role in lessening the problem.”

    Bruce notes that rigorous surveys have established how widespread the problem is and what is needed now is meaningful action. “We actually have a ton of data on sexual harassment in Australia,” she says. “We know what the victims most likely look like and what the perpetrators most likely look like. We know where it happens. Therefore, the actions on how to tackle the problem are clear. We just have to get momentum.”

    Practical advice

    As part of its Respect. It’s Everyone’s Business initiative, Chief Executive Women has created a dedicated microsite focused on how to make positive change.

    The CEW recommendations centre on driving change using the power of conversations about sexual harassment in the workplace. The site includes guidance to support a range of outcomes — such as how to navigate potential resistance, how to initiate appropriate action, effective communication and how to report on progress. It suggests boards consider asking for regular reporting on the measures listed below.

    Prevention — measuring and monitoring

    Sexual harassment training: Frequency and results (if assessed), mandatory training completion rates, what happens if training not completed?

    Workforce demographics: Diversity targets, strategy for meeting targets and progress against targets, diversity information per seniority level. CEO/leadership statements: Frequency and effectiveness with which leaders articulate the importance of gender equality and eradication of sexual harassment, set targets and report.

    Complaints handling

    Number and nature of complaints: Seniority and business/work unit of employees involved, direct complaint or whistleblower, internal or external investigation, claim substantiated or not, form of resolution, days to resolution.

    Outcomes for complainants, witnesses and bystanders: Tenure in organisation/career progression — are there any separation payouts or non-disclosure agreements? Other reports of unacceptable behaviour: What intervention took place to resolve issue prior to formal complaint?

    Case studies: Providing insight into how matters have been handled by the organisation.

    Safe culture — monitoring

    Survey feedback: Staff responses to culture questions in engagement surveys and/or regular pulse checks (to understand employee sentiment and whether people feel safe to raise concerns).

    Exit feedback: Does it suggest areas of the business are higher risk? Is there scope for confidential or anonymous feedback?

    Turnover: By gender, voluntary and non-voluntary.

    Remuneration strategy: Link to culture — commissions and incentives linked to behaviours, not just financial strategies.

    Outcome of WHS risk reviews: Is the risk of sexual harassment included in standard risk assessments?

    Internal audit: Is an internal audit function required to assess effectiveness of various processes outlined above, including the accuracy of information provided to the board?

    Latest news

    This is of of your complimentary pieces of content

    This is exclusive content.

    You have reached your limit for guest contents. The content you are trying to access is exclusive for AICD members. Please become a member for unlimited access.