Sexual harassment: Shifting the focus to prevention

Thursday, 06 January 2022


    Ahead of her address at the 2022 Australian Governance Summit, Sally Bruce GAICD explains why the board has a critical role to play in transforming the conversations we have about sexual harassment in the workplace.

    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, who sits 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 last five years, according to a survey by the Australian Human Rights Commission. The likelihood of experiencing sexual harassment is higher if a person is of First Nations descent, 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 create 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 mutual obligations and expectations in the workplace.

    End 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, maintain dashboards, 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 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 or something,” 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 here, 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 is starting to see a shift in the number of organisations deciding to handle complaints in a more efficient and 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 says 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. 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.”


    Sally Bruce will take part in a panel session at the AGS: Enough: The Board’s Role in Preventing Sexual Harassment. She will be joined by Kate Jenkins GAICD, Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Australian Human Rights Commission and Adam Fennessy PSM, Victorian Public Sector Commissioner.

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