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Working from home can stifle sexual harassment complaints

“Businesses should not underestimate the value of these informal communication channels and, while this is challenging, should think about how they can be translated to the online environment,” Ms Orifici said.

“Remote work arrangements make employers even more reliant on affected employees coming forward with complaints in order to detect potential misconduct.”

Ms Orifici said it was important for employers to reinforce behaviour they expected from employees through training, communications and policies to reduce risk of inappropriate behaviour.

The researchers also found women were reluctant to complain about sexual harassment because of the high cost of taking legal action.

“Legal advice and litigation are expensive and sexual harassment claims don’t result in a windfall,” Associate Professor Allen said. “In fact, a woman might win in court and still be out of pocket by the time she pays her lawyer.

“Women will be advised to settle, thereby avoiding the time, cost and emotion that comes with pursuing a case. Settlement also comes with the protection of confidentiality.

“It shouldn’t be up to the woman who has been sexually harassed, whose career may be left in tatters, to take action on behalf of every other woman in the workplace.

Workers based away from the office were often isolated from supportive networks, an expert said.

Workers based away from the office were often isolated from supportive networks, an expert said. Credit:iStock

“Those who are brave enough to come forward and report sexual harassment must be supported by their workplaces and the legal system.

“There needs to be a regulator that can wave a ‘big stick’ if an employer does not comply and make sure that it does in the future. The equality agencies are not currently empowered to do this and the Fair Work Ombudsman’s remit does not extend to sexual harassment.”

The researchers said the recent Dyson Heydon case highlighted some of the reasons that prevented women coming forward to complain about sexual harassment.

They included a significant power imbalance within a hierarchical structure in the workplace and a lack of processes in the workplace to deal with complaints. Victims also feared being labelled a troublemaker if they spoke out.

Associate Professor Sarah Kaine from the UTS Business School said workplaces often had complaints-based systems in place instead of proactive monitoring that relied on the fortitude of individuals to report harassment.

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Peter Wilson from the Australian Human Resources Institute (AHRI) said the problem with working from home and virtually was that people were isolated from supportive networks of colleagues and close confidantes in the office. He said there was no doubt people were at higher risk of harassment without supportive networks in the workplace.

“It doesn’t mean that those networks have disappeared, but they are less accessible,” he said.

Rhonda Brighton-Hall, chair of the Australian Human Resources Institute diversity and inclusion advisory panel, said people working from home were more vulnerable to bullying and harassment.

“Sexual harassment is a power game and so is bullying,” she said.

“The fact that people don’t use the laws has got to be an indication they are probably not working.”

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