Employees who make sexual harassment complaints are first to leave

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Employees who lodge sexual harassment complaints are several times more likely to leave companies than their alleged perpetrators, a new university report says.

The study from the University of South Australia found a whopping 60% of complainants ended up resigning or were dismissed as a consequence of victimisation after making a complaint. This contrasted greatly with the finding that just 10% of harassment perpetrators resigned or were dismissed.

The reason that so many complaints of sexual harassment escalate outside of the organisation comes down to inept handling of the complaint by an organisation, co-author Paula McDonald from the Queensland University of Technology commented. “I think where we're still seeing a real problem … is the way complaints are handled,” McDonald said.

According to McDonald, the negative consequences fall largely on the person who makes the complaint, and many incidents of sexual harassment are not reported for this very reason. “Potential complainants are very much aware of the repercussions that might come their way, and the negative fallout that often happens when they make a complaint in an organisation or elsewhere,” she said.

The study also revealed that as a complaint moves up the echelons of the legal process, the investigation often focuses much more on the treatment of the complainant after they made the complaint. An example of this was in the high-profile case brought against IBM by former employee Susan Spiteri. Her claim for $1.1m was successfully heard in Federal Court and the actions of HR put under the spotlight. After reporting bullying and harassment she was told to go away and think about if she really wanted to pursue her complaint – this became a central part of her case for receiving compensation. “If a complaint escalates to a commission, it's sometimes less about the actual sexual harassment experiences than it was about the subsequent treatment of the complainant within the organisation when they tried to file a grievance,” McDonald said.

Complaints procedures

Employers should establish internal procedures for dealing with sexual harassment complaints or grievances to enable in-house resolution. The Sex Discrimination Act does not prescribe any particular type of complaint procedure so employers have the flexibility to design a system that suits the organisation’s size, structure and resources.

As part of the legal responsibility to deal with sexual harassment, all employers must implement effective and accessible complaint procedures for employees and other workplace participants. A good complaint procedure:
 

  • conveys the message that the organisation takes sexual harassment seriously
      
  • can prevent escalation of a case and maintain positive workplace relationships
        
  • ensures that complaints are dealt with consistently and in a timely manner
       
  • reduces the likelihood of external agency involvement which can be time consuming, costly and damaging to public image
        
  • alerts an organisation to patterns of unacceptable conduct and highlights the need for prevention strategies in particular areas
        
  • reduces the risk of an employer being held liable under the Sex Discrimination Act and other anti-discrimination laws
      
  • can help to minimise the harm suffered by the person harassed
        
  • reduces the risk of the employer being held to have treated the alleged harasser unfairly, such as in an unfair dismissal claim.
     

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