The #metoo movement may have triggered a shift in awareness of employee behaviour management. But this in itself can’t protect anyone from the far-reaching financial, reputational and emotional consequences of sexual harassment in the workplace.
According to MV Law special counsel Alison Spivey, the management of inappropriate workplace behaviour, including allegations of sexual harassment, is at an important juncture following COVID lockdowns.
She says COVID, to an extent, may have halted the progress in managing inappropriate workplace behaviour brought about by the awareness around the #metoo movement.
“While the development of policy in this space has continued, fewer opportunities for people to interact in the workplace during the pandemic have meant that, in an immediate sense, there has been less risk of inappropriate behaviour occurring,” she says.
“And because of the lesser risk of the behaviour occurring, and the need for businesses to reallocate resources to deal with new and emerging priorities caused by COVID, there are likely to be some policy initiatives developed prior to the pandemic that businesses are yet to introduce.”
But as workers return to the office, it may be time for organisations to refocus on managing workplace behaviour and remind employees about standards and expectations.
“The pandemic has caused an extended period of disruption in workers’ personal and professional lives. It has brought about significant change in how we interact with each other, including how we share physical spaces such as a workplace,” she says.
“Anecdotal evidence suggests that in some businesses, the extent of changes in workers’ perceptions of personal space and what is, and what is not, appropriate behaviour in the workplace may require a cultural shift to realign with these new expectations.”
Having dealt with complaints about workplace behaviour for employers and employees, Ms Spivey warns against underestimating the importance of perception.
“Complainants need to perceive that their complaint will be taken seriously, even before they take the step of making that complaint. Respondents need to perceive they will have a proper opportunity to defend the allegations against them. If either of the parties do not hold these perceptions, they will not participate fully or cooperatively.
“And those who may be observing or critiquing the process, including other workers within the business, need to perceive the process is one that is transparent and capable of getting to the bottom of the allegations made.”
Incidents of inappropriate workplace behaviour can have serious detrimental effects on the entire business, from those directly involved to the employer and wider staff base.
Ms Spivey says it’s therefore critical to act immediately on complaints and to take them all seriously.
“Businesses should have in place an appropriate policy which sets out how complaints about workplace behaviour may be made and how they will be managed,” she says.
“This will help the business respond to a complaint more efficiently and effectively, and to manage the expectations of stakeholders.”
Ms Spivey says failing to respond appropriately to complaints about workplace behaviour, or if there’s a perception inappropriate behaviour will be tolerated, can have far-reaching consequences for a business beyond legalities.
“It is fair to assume businesses do not want to be tarred with the reputation of being an organisation that accepts inappropriate workplace behaviour or does not deal appropriately with complaints about workplace behaviour. It does not make for the type of place that people want to work,” she says.
“Apart from anything else, we are in the midst of a significant skills shortage, and businesses can’t afford these types of exposures if they want to remain an attractive option – not only to potential candidates, but also their existing workforce.”
Ms Spivey says having a clear framework for managing workplace behaviour – including policies and training – can be the difference between efficient complaint resolution and a “snowball” effect.
“Businesses should invest resources upfront to identify their policy in relation to workplace behaviour and how complaints are broadly going to be managed. So if they find themselves in the unfortunate circumstance where a complaint is made, it will be significantly less costly to everyone involved, in every sense of the word.”
For advice on all workplace law matters, phone MV Law on 6279 4444 or for more information, visit the MV Law website.