When Gender is Irrelevant: Male-On-Male Workplace Harassment

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Sexual harassment and predatory behaviour can happen to anybody. When most people think about this type of conduct, it is generally in the context of male-to-female harassment or, perhaps more rarely, female-to-male harassment. However, this is simply not the case - sexual harassment can be perpetrated by anybody towards anybody. 

A recent decision of the Civil and Administrative Tribunal of NSW highlights the potential for employees to be victims of sexual harassment and victimisation in the workplace, regardless of their gender. 

The decision in Kordas v Ruba & Jo Pty Ltd t/a Aztec Hair & Beauty also affirms the entitlement of workers to financial compensation when they have been subjected to sexual harassment. 

Inappropriate behaviour

In Kordas, the worker complained about various instances of inappropriate behaviour and sexual harassment during his employment as an apprentice hairdresser working for the respondent. 

The behaviour complained of by the worker included:

  • Being told by his employer that workers were similar to racehorses because 'they need a pat on the bum to go faster'.
  • Having his supervisor tell clients that he and the worker were similar to a gay couple and that they were very 'close'. 
  • Being followed into a private area, slapped on the buttocks with a ruler by his trainer and being asked to smack him back because the trainer 'like[d] being slapped on the bum'.
  • Humiliation by the trainer when he threw a hair clip onto the ground, in the worker's opinion, because the employer wanted to see him bend over. 
  • The trainer complaining that the worker had incorrectly clipped a cape onto a client
  • Feeling harassed when the worker asked the trainer if he felt they got along and the response was yes, because 'you're my bitch'. 
  • Upon complaining to his employer and asking why he was referred to as the salon 'bitch', being told 'I used to work in a restaurant. All the boys used to grab me by my boobs'. 
  • Being grabbed around the waist and physically moved by his supervisor instead of being asked to move out of the way. 
  • Having his palm stroked in a flirtatious manner by his employer when he was handed money for errands. 

The worker had initially complained to his boss, who was also the director and owner of the business running the hair salon, about being victimised. But no action was taken, and the worker was ultimately dismissed. 

The history of complaints

The apprentice stated that he had not complained initially about the inappropriate behaviour because he had wanted to keep his job. 

However, in February 2015, the worker finally complained to the employer about various issues he was experiencing, including very low wages, ongoing harassment and feeling that he was being sabotaged. Although the employer initially promised that everything would be sorted out, he then made the above mentioned comment, likening hairdressers to racehorses. 

At this time, the worker demanded changes in his treatment, but the employer denied ever having received any complaints or personally witnessed any harassment. 

The employer then advised the worker that there were no senior staff available to continue his training and dismissed him. The stress and emotions suffered by the worker as a result of this treatment ultimately caused him to leave his chosen profession of hairdressing, working instead as a barber. 

Findings of the tribunal

Upon hearing the complaints, Tribunal Senior Member Scahill and General Member Newman commented that although the harassing behaviour was not the worst they had ever seen, it had clearly impacted upon the apprentice in a very significant way and had caused him to change his future career plans. 

The nature of some of the inappropriate behaviour was found to be sexual harassment, particularly the physical contact and comments regarding being a 'bitch' and a 'gay couple'. Moreover, the significant disparity in power between an employer or senior employee and an apprentice was such that the worker was reasonably and clearly intimidated, humiliated and harassed. 

The employing business was also held vicariously liable for the conduct on the basis that it had failed to ensure a workplace free of harassment and had failed to appropriately respond to the worker's complaints. 

The worker was awarded compensation comprising:

  • $5,000 in general damages for the sexual harassment by the employer
  • $10,000 in damages for the trainer's sexual harassment
  • $15,000 for victimisation

As this case demonstrates sexual harassment and inappropriate conduct can occur in any workplace, and between any gender. If you are concerned about a case of potential harassment at your organisation, contact us for assistance. We offer both supported and full workplace investigation services. 

Bullying in High Stress Workplaces: Can an Investigation Help?

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, August 30, 2017

A disproportionately high number of allegations of bullying in emergency services and other high stress environments have led to a referral to the NSW parliament for an inquiry in May 2017, looking at the policy response to bullying, harassment, and discrimination in certain emergency services. A review is also being conducted by the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission of allegations of bullying and harassment into the MFB and CFA. 

The very nature of the tasks undertaken in these workplaces understandably provokes a variety of extreme responses in both senior and lower-level staff. A combination of observed trauma, time-critical demands and associated spikes in adrenaline for individual professionals can lead to tense communication and decision-making.

It is essential that Human Resource (HR) managers take an objective approach towards all issues raised by the parties when allegations of bullying in emergency services arise. 

In many cases, a well-planned workplace investigation will mark the difference between costly repercussions and an efficient resolution of issues within these high stress environments. 

Alarming workplace reports

Incidents of workplace bullying are on rise across Australian emergency contexts. A 2017 report on emergency departments highlighted the deplorable extent of workplace bullying reported amongst emergency doctors. Shaming, verbal abuse and sexual harassment were just some of the parlous behaviours reported by 1/3 of survey participants.

Similarly, NSW has announced that the extent of workplace bullying within emergency services now requires a dedicated investigation. There are indications that the hierarchical nature of these services leads to the depersonalised treatment of personnel involved. 

Submissions for the NSW Parliament inquiry closed in July, with hearings scheduled for September - October 2017. During the inquiry, police, ambulance and fire services will each be scrutinised in relation to allegations of bullying and the troubling aftershocks that can accompany such incidents. 

Workplace bullying and hr responses

The importance of HR departments in recognising and dealing promptly with allegations of workplace bullying in emergency services cannot be overstated. 

As part of this focus, it is essential that any workplace investigation into alleged bullying be carried out in a professional and objective manner. Moreover, important decisions need to be made about an organisation's capacity to conduct an investigation that complies with the demands of procedural fairness. 

In some matters that are likely to prove particularly complex or sensitive it might be preferable to source the expertise of a trained workplace investigator. 

If HR managers can find prompt and accurate answers to these questions, any future costs of workplace disputes are likely to be mitigated. 

THE good and the bad of workplace investigations

Unfortunately, even a workplace investigation, if carried out without careful preparation and execution can be entirely unproductive - or even a costly blow to the organisation. At times, employers can underestimate their own lack of objectivity during investigations of workplace bullying. Unlike many workplace procedures, knowing the people involved can actually prove a hindrance to workplace investigations. The ability to see things in a truly fresh and clear manner is crucial to investigations; and sometimes hard to muster if preconceptions exist. 

Some employers are fortunate enough to have within their ranks staff that are fully trained in the nuances of workplace bullying allegations and the right way to conduct workplace investigations. When carried out correctly, an in-house investigation can do all that is necessary to produce a fair and accurate investigation report. 

Yet if any doubt remains about the potential bias, pre-judgement or lack of resources within the organisation, then an external workplace investigation will pay dividends. If an investigation has fatal flaws that are later picked up in official proceedings, then employers will find themselves in an unenviable position.  

investigation woes: a case in point

In a recent Federal Court matter, Justice North made a piercing analysis of the deficiencies in one organisation's methods of investigation. Victoria's Royal Women's Hospital conducted a workplace investigation into the alleged contribution made by a neonatologist to the deaths of two infants. His Honour explained that the deficiencies within the investigation report were significant. Vague allegations against the worker and the lack of specifics concerning event, time and place led to a report that was devilled by 'apparent holes' as well as 'pollution' from fraught relationships. 

The case highlights the importance of gaining true objectivity from the situation whenever a workplace investigation is undertaken.

Care at every turn

Employers understand that when allegations of workplace bullying arise it becomes essential to keep the elements of procedural fairness front-and-centre. HR and senior management must make fast and accurate decisions about how and when to activate a workplace investigation. 

Considering the disproportionately high number of allegations of workplace bullying in emergency services, it is hoped that good decisions are made around the best way to investigate these troubling situations. 

Should you or your organisation be seeking clarity on the best way to conduct a workplace investigation, please get in touch with us. 

Natural Justice - Privacy and Reliance on Covert Workplace Surveillance

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, July 26, 2017

In a recent decision of the Fair Work Commission (FWC), a nurse has been reinstated following her termination in circumstances where covert video surveillance was the 'sole foundation' of allegations against her. The FWC also found that her employer's human resources department acted incorrectly and inappropriately in the circumstances surrounding her dismissal.

facts of the case

Ms Tavassoli, an Iranian refugee, was employed as a nurse at a Bupa Aged Care Australia Pty Ltd nursing home located in Mosman, NSW. 

In Tavassoli v Bupa Aged Care Mosman [2017] FWC 3200, she claimed that she had been constructively dismissed after being falsely accused of serious misconduct by her employer. 

A colleague of Ms Tavassoli's had secretly recorded her on a personal mobile phone, which allegedly showed Ms Tavassoli:    

  • Making fun of a resident
  • Singing select, mocking lyrics from a musical including "Anything you can do, I can do better."
  • Continuing to drink tea with another co-worker while residents were calling for help.
  • Laughingly telling a colleague that she was lucky to have swapped a shift during which two patients passed away. 

Ms Tavassoli's colleague took the footage to the facility's acting general manager and care manager. 

In response, the very next morning, the general manager took Ms Tavassoli, off-site for a disciplinary hearing. Despite pulling Ms Tavassoli out of a training session the general manager did not inform her what allegations had been made against her, and caused her to wait for two hours before the meeting actually took place. 

During that time, Ms Tavassoli thought about what accusations may have been made against her and became concerned that she would be accused of theft after a patient had gifted her with some beer. Accordingly, Ms Tavassoli drafted a resignation letter. 

When the meeting finally took place, Ms Tavassoli was accused of various types of misconduct. Although she didn't fully understand the accusations against her, Ms Tavassoli tendered her resignation, providing four weeks' notice. However, the general manager advised her that the resignation would be effective immediately, and requested that Ms Tavassoli amend the resignation letter to remove the reference to a four-week notice period. 

Ms Tavassoli attempted to withdraw her resignation only two days later but was denied this right. 

decision of the commission

In deciding to order that Ms Tavassoli be reinstated to her former position, Commissioner Riordan determined that:

  • Ms Tavassoli had been constructively dismissed
  • The general manager acted without due procedural fairness when he refused to permit Ms Tavassoli to withdraw her resignation and return to her former position. 

A particular factor taken into account by Commissioner Riordan was that Bupa is a large organisation, with considerable resources. As a result, he concluded that the human resources department should have followed appropriate processes in dealing with Ms Tavassoli, and crucially should have shown Ms Tavassoli the video evidence collected against her. This was heightened by the employer's knowledge that Ms Tavassoli's English skills were poor. 

The decision not to show the footage was considered to deny Ms Tavassoli the right to know what case she had to answer. Indeed, Commissioner Riordan went so far as to suggest that the human resources department failed in their obligations to Ms Tavassoli and committed 'a form of entrapment' by not showing her exactly what information had been gathered against her. 

He found that the employer had made a determination of Ms Tavassoli's guilt immediately upon seeing the footage, and had failed to undertake any proper investigation as to the circumstances surrounding the behaviour. 

Commissioner Riordan further noted that, by requesting that Ms Tavassoli amend the terms contained in her resignation letter, the general manager effectively 'took over' the termination, which supported a finding of constructive dismissal. 

He was also highly critical of Ms Tavassoli's colleague who had taken the recordings, but accepted that the Commission did not have any rights to proceed against the colleague.

Against this background, Commissioner Riordan ordered that Ms Tavassoli be returned to her former role. 

Legality of secret recordings

Perhaps the most crucial factor in Commissioner Riordan's decision was his concern that the video recordings breached the Workplace Video Surveillance Act 1998 (NSW)

According to the Act, any surveillance conducted by an employer in the workplace is considered 'covert' unless the employee:  

  • Is notified in writing, before the intended surveillance, that it will take place.
  • The surveillance devices are clearly visible.
  • Signs are clearly noticeable at each entrance which point out that employees may be recorded in the workplace. 

Even though the employer did not take the footage in this case - with the recordings instead being made by a colleague of Ms Tavassoli - the fact that the employer relied upon the footage to discipline Ms Tavassoli was considered by Commissioner Riordan to be a sufficient breach of her privacy to run afoul of the Act. 

The Key message FOR EMPLOYERS

The takeaway message for employers here is twofold. Firstly, it is always essential that employees have the opportunity to respond, in detail, to allegations which are made against them, as well as being presented all the evidence which is being relied upon to support the allegations. Secondly, employers must be careful not to rely upon inappropriately obtained evidence which contravenes privacy legislation or any other relevant laws. Employers must comply with any applicable surveillance laws when relying on such evidence.   

Should you require an external workplace investigation into allegations of misconduct, contact WISE Workplace