Clifford Gouldson Lawyers

Letting harassment complaints go unresolved could cost your business dearly

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Two recent decisions in Victoria highlight how seriously Australian Courts and Tribunals treat sexual harassment and discrimination claims in the workplace.  In particular, these decisions serve as a warning to employers that if they ignore these complaints or allow this conduct, substantial damages may be awarded to the employee subjected to the harassment and discrimination.
The Decisions
Kate Matthews v Winslow Constructors
In the Supreme Court decision of Kate Matthews v Winslow Constructors (Winslow) a female employee, who worked as a road construction labourer for Winslow between the period August 2008 to July 2010, was subjected to ongoing sexual harassment and bullying.  Within that time, she was threatened with rape, touched inappropriately and mocked about sexual acts.  In addition, she was called “useless”, “spastic” and a “bimbo”. 
Ms Matthews complained to her employer.  In the first instance, Ms Matthews complained to her Supervisor about an offensive comment made to her by another colleague, but her Supervisor “laughed” it off.  The Supervisor was also responsible for offensive remarks made to Ms Matthews during her employment.  Ms Matthews then complained to the Area Site Manager.  However, the Area Site Manager did nothing further to address her complaint.
In July 2010, Ms Matthews was told by a colleague that he was "going to follow you home, rip your clothes off and rape you", when she said she was going home for lunch  Following this incident, Ms Matthews resigned from her employment with Winslow.

Judge Forrest of the Victorian Supreme Court, accepted medical evidence that as a result of the harassment she faced during her employment, Ms Matthews was now unlikely to ever work again.  Ms Matthews was diagnosed with chronic psychiatric illnesses, including bipolar and post-traumatic stress disorders, severe anxiety and depression.

Judge Forrest also found that there was "resounding and unanimous" evidence that Ms Matthews had been a good worker who but for the actions of her colleagues, would have remained employed for some time to come and it would have been likely that she would have “moved up the ladder” at Winslow. 
As a result of the employer’s negligence, Ms Matthews was awarded $1.36 million in damages.  This comprised of general damages, past economic loss and the loss of her future earning capacity.

Collins v Smith (Human Rights)

A sexually harassed postal worker has been awarded $330,000 in costs by the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (the Tribunal) after being sexually harassed and discriminated against by her manager, who was also an owner of the post office where she worked.

The Tribunal heard that over a four month period, the manager tried to kiss Mrs Collins (the employee), rubbed her crotch area and thighs and sent her text messages after work, notes and a Valentine’s Day card.  Mrs Collins rejected his advances and comments and attempted to keep the relationship professional as she depended on her job to meet her family’s financial commitments.   The manager then likened her to a Lamborghini stating ‘if I had a Lamborghini in the garage, and I can’t drive it, then I don’t want it here anymore’.

Mrs Collins resigned from her employment due to the manager’s continued behaviour. Vice President Jenkins stated that “I also accept that she felt trapped and powerless to prevent the Respondent’s behaviour, particularly where she felt a financial dependency upon her employment”.  As a result of the manager’s actions Mrs Collins developed anxiety and depression.  The damages awarded to her included compensation for past and future economic loss and other expenses (including costs for medical appointments and medication).

Further, the employer was also ordered to pay Mrs Collins’ costs for the proceeding.

Lesson for Employers

These decisions serve as lessons for employers that this type of behaviour will not be tolerated and can't be ignored. 

Employers ought to ensure that:
  • appropriate policies and procedures are in place for handling these types of matters; and
  • action is taken promptly to address, investigate and manage any complaints made.
Do not hesitate to contact Clifford Gouldson Lawyers’ Workplace Team should you have any questions regarding the content of this update.
For more information contact our Workplace Team.
Danny Clifford, Director Angela Pratt, Senior Lawyer
Nadia De Pascali, Lawyer Amie Mish-Wills, Lawyer
Nigel Saines, Lawyer Maddie Hargens, Paralegal
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