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Career

Sexual harassment at work: Your rights

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If a colleague is making unwanted advances towards you that make you feel offended, humiliated or intimidated, here's the action you can take.
"What are you doing!?" I asked my boss as he grazed his fingertips over my shoulder blades.
"I'm touching you inappropriately," he said. "Does it bother you?"
Of course it bothered me. It bothered me the other night when he had attempted to get me drunk at my "welcome" dinner and tell me how beautiful I was.
It was certainly not OK when, at the end of the evening, he had tried to coax me into his hotel room to "admire the view".
Every time I declined, I would be berated in front of my work colleagues until he was in the mood to advance on me again. His actions were unwelcome; they filled me with a sense of dread and guilt and affected my work performance.
However, due to a fear of damaging my career opportunities, I decided to leave the job instead of making my grievances known.
Sexual harassment: The law
According to the Australian Human Rights Commission, sexual harassment is unwanted or unwelcome sexual behaviour, which makes a person feel offended, humiliated or intimidated.
It can range from leering, staring or unwanted correspondence, to touching, groping or incessant requests for intercourse.
In accordance with the provisions of the Sex Discrimination Act (1984), sexual harassment is considered unlawful. However, while 21 percent of all complaints made to the Commission relate to sexual harassment, a tremendous 85 percent of all claims never come to the attention of the courts.
According to Gary Pinchen, spokesperson for Workplace discrimination representatives, A Whole New Approach, this is due to two main factors.
"The first is the role of consent," he says. "The second depends on other factors that can shape the outcomes of a claim."
The role of consent
Consent is a crucial aspect in determining flirtation from harassment, and legal from illegal interaction.
"Sexual harassment not only has to be unwanted, but known that it is unwanted," Pinchen says.
It is not enough to feel that a colleague's advances are unlawful. "You need to let them know that you don't like it and you don't want it," Pinchen adds.
By making it known, there is a chance that your claim will not be dismissed on account of the colleague not knowing their actions were unwelcome at the time.
"If it continues, you need to head to the HR manager or General Manager and make it known," Pinchen says.
Repercussions of sexual harassment
While it may feel difficult to pursue a sexual harassment claim, Pinchen warns that the repercussions of not coming forward can outweigh the consequences of filing a complaint.
"Those being harassed suffer in silence and tend to experience high levels of stress and depression," he says.
Harassment can also have a flow-on effect and impact negatively on your personal life, relationships, and even the job you're attempting to save by remaining silent.
"You may end up without a job, without money, without a leg to stand on," Pinchen warns.
Resolving issues
Once a complaint has been lodged, varying factors will determine whether your claim is seen by the courts or not. Factors could include anything from whether you had made your grievances known to the offender, or what your company's policies on handling sexual harassment are.
"There is also the ever-present factor of vicarious liability," Pinchen says.
Vicarious liability, or the principle that a superior is liable for the negligent actions of their subordinate, will shape the behaviour of your employers towards the claim.
"Management is trained to protect the company," Pinchen says. "They will do what is needed to protect the company from such claims."
This means that it may be in the interest of the company to settle out of court or have proceedings conducted by legal representation, without either party present.
However, it is important to remember that it is not the sole responsibility of the company to determine how proceedings are shaped.
"Those that have experienced sexual harassment may want to look the perpetrator in the eye," Pinchen says. "Others may just want to get on with the job."
Either way, your voice will also determine whether your claim will reach the courts or not.
Today, I enjoy work and the memory of my old boss is now merely a shadow. Nonetheless, I sometimes wonder what would have happened had I spoken up.

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