No Winners In Sexual Harassment Cases | WISE Workplace

When Vivienne Dye started work at CommSec little did she imagine that she would be a casualty of her own action; irreparably destroying her career and reputation and turning the lives of two colleagues upside down.

The sexual harassment case she instigated against Michael Blomfield and Angus Patterson embroiled the Commonwealth Bank’s online share-broking division for four years. By the time Federal Court Judge Robert Buchanan concluded earlier this year that Ms Dye had fabricated her allegations, the damage to all had been considerable.

Similarly devastating was the fall-out from the more recent sexual harassment case of James Ashby versus the Commonwealth and Peter Slipper. Although the case is still in court, Mr Ashby has filed evidence of text messages to support allegations that the former Speaker of the House engaged in predatory sexual conduct even before Mr Ashby started working for him. Mr Slipper resigned and Parliament itself came under a cloud of public disapproval.

Both cases hold important lessons. By the time allegations reach the courtroom, there are unlikely to be any winners: the media will have dissected personal and professional lives in salacious detail, careers and reputations will already be in tatters, and the cost of legal action – and management time – may run into many millions of dollars.

In Dye v CommSec and Others, early internal investigations by CommSec established Mr Blomfield’s and Mr Patterson’s innocence and as a result CommSec supported them in court.

Appropriate behaviour with colleagues outside the workplace is also an issue that warrants consideration, as much of Ms Dye’s allegations centred on situations that happened after work hours and outside the office in public places such as bars, a park and her apartment.

In Ashby v Commonwealth and Slipper, the ease with which SMS messages between the two were retrieved and filed as evidence is a salutary lesson to those who communicate this way at work. It is important that communications with work colleagues use appropriate language.

While these cases may dramatically highlight the issue of sexual harassment in less-than-usual circumstances, sexual harassment in the workplace is common and widespread.

The Australian Human Rights Commission’s recent report Working Without Fear revealed that in the last five years, 20 per cent of workers over the age of 15 years old have been sexually harassed in the workplace; that’s 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men. Women under the age of 40 were the most common target, and half the cases involved men harassing women and a quarter of men harassing men.

If employers implement appropriate policies and procedures with respect to sexual harassment, they can deal with it in-house before it gets out of hand. Continuous education and training of both managers and workers alike has to be part of the process.

If complaints do arise, these recent high-profile cases would suggest that all parties are better off submitting to independent investigation and mediation, without recourse to costly court proceedings and beyond the damaging glare of the media.

See HREOC Report Working without Fear Telephone Survey