Corporate leaders call for end to non-disclosure agreements silencing victims of workplace sexual harassment
Management and boards of top-listed companies dealing with sexual harassment complaints need to be upfront about what the perpetrators did rather than cover it up and silence the victims, according to a new report that calls on corporate Australia to rethink its approach.
Workplace sexual harassment has been back under the spotlight following cases coming to light around the world because of the #MeToo movement, as well as recent complaints against senior men at QBE and AMP that have been widely covered in the media.
A new report launched today by Male Champions of Change (MCC) — a group of senior corporate leaders committed to gender equality in workplaces — argues victims should be free to tell their stories rather than be forced to sign non-disclosure agreements that silence them.
Developed over two years by the MCC and inspired by the National Inquiry into Workplace Sexual Harassment, the report calls for a complete overhaul of how companies identify, investigate and settle sexual harassment claims.
Four in five victims of workplace sexual harassment are women.
James Fazzino, chairman of Manufacturing Australia and lead member on the report, said boards and executives needed to start treating sexual harassment complaints with the same level of urgency and transparency as they did with occupational health and safety.
“Why should women have to put up with this rubbish?” Mr Fazzino said.
“I think it’s outrageous that women go to work and get harassed.
“It’s illegal, it goes against the values and code of conduct in organisations, and it’s for boards and senior leadership to say, ‘No, it’s not acceptable.'”
Male Champions of Change founder Liz Broderick said women should not be prevented from telling their stories.
“We’ve sucked the humanity out of our responses,” Ms Broderick said.
“We’ve stopped women from telling their own story, in their own words, at a time of their choosing.
“And if we stop a woman doing that, we stop her process of healing, and … organisations can’t learn and shift.”
Staff urged to speak out about harassment
The report also recommends all employees be better educated about what constitutes sexual harassment — as opposed to a consensual sexual relationship in the workplace and the parameters surrounding that — and be expected to speak up when there is sexual harassment at play.
“Clearly what we’ve been doing hasn’t worked — sexual harassment is still prevalent,” Mr Fazzino said.
“Up until this point claims typically end up in the hands of [internal company] lawyers and result in non-disclosure agreements. That’s exactly what not to do.”
Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins, who spent more than a year investigating workplace sexual harassment as part of a national inquiry, said: “Leaders have the unique power to ensure their workplaces are safe, respectful and inclusive.”
“Their employees and the community expect no less from them,” Ms Jenkins said.
Ms Broderick, who is now the chair-rapporteur of the UN Working Group on Discrimination against Women and Girls, said a lack of transparency allowed some people to think they could keep getting away with sexual harassment.
“In the past you could have thought as senior man, ‘I’ll leave quietly and I hope to get a good payout,’ but I think those days are in the past,” she said.
“There’s a high chance the case ends up in media. Naming the behaviours and the person will actually shift some of the behaviours we’re seeing.”
Mr Fazzino said once a complaint had been investigated and confirmed, everyone in that organisation should be informed about it, the victims should be free to tell their story, and the perpetrators should be sacked.
“And we need to know why men have left organisations — such as in the QBE case,” he said.
QBE has come under fire for not being transparent about why it sacked former chief Pat Regan following a complaint by a female employee over “inappropriate behaviour”.
Mr Regan will lose about $10 million in unvested shares following that complaint, which led the board to find he had breached the insurer’s code of conduct.
In a statement to the ASX on Wednesday, QBE said Mr Regan finished with the company on Tuesday and will receive a $310,000 payment in lieu of a reduced notice period, plus his statutory leave entitlements.
How a complaint gets investigated matters
AMP has also faced heat for initially promoting the man at the centre of the financial services giant’s latest sexual harassment controversy, Boe Pahari.
The company kept Mr Pahari in a top-paying role despite an internal investigation of a sexual harassment complaint by his subordinate at the time, Julia Szlakowski.
The complaint was settled and resulted in Mr Pahari initially getting a 25 per cent reduction in his annual bonus, which amounted to $500,000, but he was later promoted to the top job at AMP Capital. He has since stepped down from that role but remains with the company.
More allegations that senior men at the company sexually harassed their subordinates came to light last month when a statement from a junior employee turned whistleblower was read out in Parliament by senator Deborah O’Neill.
The whistleblower said she was “bullied, victimised and ultimately silenced” when she tried to speak, and that her life was destroyed for making the complaint while the male perpetrators were promoted and “thrived”.
Speaking generally, rather than about any specific case, Mr Fazzino said often harassment was not a one-off event but a pattern of consistently poor behaviour.
“If you want to stop this stuff you have to deal with the everyday sexism,” he said.
Mr Fazzino said when a harassment allegation arose, it should not be a company’s lawyers or human resources staff who investigated, but rather people who had a strong understanding of what constituted sexual harassment.
“There are nuances — you need to bring someone skilled to investigate,” he said.
“And while that investigation is going on, you need confidentiality.”
The investigation should take place swiftly, he said, and once a complaint was substantiated the victim should not be forced to sign a non-disclosure agreement.
“These, sadly, are all too common,” he said.
“There’s no place for non-disclosure agreements. They are an insult.”
Culture is also about what you don’t tolerate
Mr Fazzino also warned companies against retaining perpetrators of sexual harassment because they were perceived to be moneymakers.
Mr Fazzino said sexual harassment went to the heart of a company’s culture.
“If we learnt anything from the banking royal commission, it’s that culture matters,” he said.
“It doesn’t matter how much money someone makes for you if it’s at the expense of your culture and your values.
Again speaking generally, rather than about any specific case, Ms Broderick said some people in corporate Australia “may be nostalgic about the old days when they thought sexual harassment was a game”.
He said ultimately a toxic culture would lead to bad performance in the long term and destroy a company’s value.
“Culture is about what you don’t tolerate as much as what you do,” he said.
“If leadership isn’t leading by example, it will have no impact. It’s about holding people to account.”