Having an effective code of conduct is essential for businesses, in part because it is a useful tool in preventing a toxic workplace culture.
Such a culture can lead to disharmony in the workplace, job dissatisfaction, and higher turnover rates. All these issues impact productivity and, ultimately, profitability.
One important and serious area within a code of conduct is harassment, particularly sexual harassment.
If an employer does not meet its obligations to provide a harassment free workplace, it can be held to be vicariously liable if an employee is sexually harassed at work. This means that the employer can be found accountable for the actions of the person who engaged in the sexually harassing behaviour. This liability is set out in section 106 of the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth).
The Australian Human Rights Commission’s (AHRC) most recent national survey on sexual harassment in Australian workplaces confirms that sexual harassment is widespread and pervasive. One in three people have experienced sexual harassment at work in the last five years – a marked increase in the prevalence rate recorded by previous surveys. Half of victims have experienced similar harassment before. A substantial proportion experience negative consequence as a result, such as impacts on mental health or stress.
Reporting of workplace sexual harassment is low. Only 17% of people who experienced sexual harassment at work in the last five years made a formal report or complaint about the harassment. The survey also shows that while the number of bystanders to sexual harassment is increasing, less of them took action than in previous surveys.
It is vital that, as employers, we take action both to prevent workplace sexual harassment from occurring and respond appropriately when a report is made, including supporting bystanders.
My firm has both a code of conduct and a bullying and harassment policy. The code applies to partners, employees, whether permanent or temporary, contractors, consultants, work experience students and volunteers. All are required to sign it.
For those businesses who do not have policies, or are unsure if what action to take, the AHRC has a useful code of practice and a short guide for employers on effectively preventing and responding to sexual harassment. Businesses help each other by sharing expertise to stamp out this destructive behavior. Employer groups must take a lead role in raising awareness of the issue and the solutions to it.