What do the new Respect@Work laws mean for your organisation?
The Respect@Work laws set a new gold standard for tackling workplace sexual harassment – and place significant onus on leaders’ actions.
The Anti-Discrimination and Human Rights Legislation Amendment (Respect at Work) Bill 2022, that passed through Federal Parliament recently after the government prioritised the adoption of recommendations by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins, has brought with it a raft of changes with implications for all organisations.
Partner at national law firm Holding Redlich Michael Selinger said the new laws mean leaders must take greater responsibility for tackling workplace sexual harassment.
‘One of the main changes is the Bill introduces a positive duty for employers to take reasonable and proportionate measures to eliminate sexual harassment, harassment on the grounds of sex, hostile workplace environments and victimisation, as far as possible,’ Mr Selinger said.
‘The Bill places a much greater emphasis on senior managers and directors to take an active role in stamping out sexual harassment in their workplaces. Employers have always been exposed to vicarious liability for the actions of their employees breaching the Sex Discrimination Act. However, the Bill now elevates the focus directly on employers to take ‘reasonable and proportionate’ measures with the Australian Human Rights Commission now able to make direct inquiries into an organisation if the Commissioner considers that they are not complying.’
Mr Selinger said the Respect@Work bill will require leaders to analyse their organisations and undertake necessary changes to ensure the amendments are supported.
‘For managers and directors, the impact of this changed approach means that it is critical that they personally make sure the organisation has systems in place to eliminate harassment and that the culture is supportive of receiving complaints and investigating them promptly and fairly.
‘Building better communication about harassment and avenues of support are matters of priority. Ensuring training is undertaken by everyone in the organisation, including contractors, and that the training is regular, up-to-date and effective is equally critical. Using HR tools such as surveys, focus sessions and confidential whistle-blower arrangements are also important proactive tools.’
Executive Director Women on Boards (WOB) Claire Braund said leaders need to foster the right culture to properly implement Respect@Work laws in their organisation.
‘No matter how robust your strategic plan is, it can only succeed if the habitat in which it operates (the culture) is vibrant, healthy and respectful,’ Ms Braund said.
‘Arguments that ‘a bit of friendly workforce banter’ has always been part of how we do things around here, does not make it an acceptable cultural practice.’
Ms Braund said building a strong compliance culture can be a vehicle for educating workers about their Respect@Work rights and responsibilities.
‘Having a culture of compliance means that every employee knows and understands the rules and, more importantly, embraces their part in ensuring that they are followed. In other words, don’t see the positive duty as a further impost or a ‘compliance’ or legal matter but as a way of providing a safe workplace with a positive and productive culture to employees and others who work in their workplaces,’ Ms Braund said.
When asked what steps workplaces should be taking to ensure they are proactively promoting an anti-bullying culture, Holding Redlich’s Mr Selinger said there are four immediate steps that all employers should take:
- update policies to ensure that they reflect the new laws on appropriate workplace behaviour, noting the broader meaning of what constitutes sexual harassment.
- train and educate all workers on their duty of care, including targeted training sessions based on seniority and responsibility within the organisation. As best practice, training sessions should be compulsory and run at least once a year.
- obtain as much guidance from internal and external resources on the new duty, including from the proposed guidelines to be issued by the Australian Human Rights Commission.
- initiate a review of your organisation’s workplace culture to determine whether there are any gaps and address any deficiencies as soon as possible.
To help the introduction of the new Respect@Work laws, Chief Executive Women (CEW) have developed the Respect is Everyone’s Business resource. This is designed to help empower boards and executive leadership teams to implement the positive duties across the organisations.
And the Federal Government has created a Respect@Work portal, providing a range of online resources to help stop workplace sexual harassment.
2023 is set to bring more changes to the bill such as further defining of poor conduct and declaring new sanctions for this conduct. Governance Institute will monitor this issue closely.