Many workplaces may think they already prioritise the prevention of sexual harassment and assault of their employees and have good policies and processes to deal with it.
But it’s clear existing measures and good intent are not enough.
Because despite the many efforts of employers across the country during my 30-plus year career, sexual harassment and assault remains an insidious and complex blight that continues to scar the lives and careers of too many people.
It has taken the courage of a growing number of victims sharing their stories so publicly in the past few months for Australia to be shocked into finally reaching a turning point.
It’s a unique moment where we have a chorus of voices from women and men – including those of victims, politicians, investors, employer groups, advocacy groups and campaigns including #MeToo and #LetHerSpeak – whose message could not be clearer: sexual harassment and assault, especially in workplaces, needs to stop.
Clearly, this is a whole of society problem.
But when it comes to what happens in workplaces, the onus lies with employers – in organisations of all sizes and sectors – to ensure when every employee turns up for work, they feel safe, included and respected.
As Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins wrote in her landmark Sexual Harassment National Inquiry Report, Respect@Work, workplace sexual harassment is not inevitable; it is preventable.
And a good starting point for all employers is to take a fresh look at their existing approach, to test and challenge it, using a victim-centric and contemporary lens, and ask themselves if there is more they can be doing.
That’s certainly been the case at Westpac.
Although the bank has had very strong and mature policies and practices around these issues for decades – and has zero tolerance for sexual harassment or assault – we were prompted by the findings of the Respect@Work report to review our approach and found there was more we could be doing.
As a result, tangible measures we’ve recently introduced include a new hotline staffed by a team of specialists with experience in providing support, in a very sensitive way, to employees who may experience sexual harassment. We’ve also updated our Sexual Harassment Policy and Group Consequence Management Framework to more explicitly spell out our zero tolerance for sexual harassment, which means dismissal for this conduct; we’ve refreshed staff training; and expanded and elevated our detailed reporting, including to the Board.
I view our more intangible new measures as equally, if not more, important.
For instance, we’re creating the ‘No bystander’ rule which acts as a reminder to everyone, especially leaders, that if we see or hear instances of sexual harassment or assault, we have an obligation to speak up, and to know that it is safe to do so. This will also help us move closer to a more proactive model, rather than relying on complaints from individuals, in line with our ‘positive duty of care’.
Similarly, we are actively applying a victim-centric lens to our processes and, importantly, will look to shine a brighter light on the consequences, with the aim of prevention. Where an employee commits sexual harassment or assault, they will be dismissed. In cases of assault, in line with our victim-centric approach, depending on the victim’s wishes, and the appropriate laws, they’ll also be reported to relevant authorities.
We’re also sending a clear message to employees that being influenced by alcohol is no excuse for poor behaviour – as this has been a factor in too many past offences.
While these additional steps will help in the battle against sexual harassment, of course, these issues require continual review and ongoing test and challenge.
Westpac supports all recommendations of the Respect@Work report and will act on each, as relevant, as and when they are formalised – such as anonymised reporting to help improve national measurement and target setting.
I know the bank is not alone among workplaces which view these actions as urgent and understand the significance of this unique moment in the collective battle to quash sexual harassment and assault in Australia.
By stepping up, raising the bar and demonstrating leadership, employers can drive change.
Because we have an obligation to ensure when employees come to work, they feel safe, included and respected.
If you or someone you know is experiencing violence or abuse, please contact 1800 RESPECT.