Chapter 5: Information, reporting and complaints - Sexual harassment: Serious business


 Serious businessSexual harassment: Serious business

Chapter 5: Information, reporting and complaints

Contents

5 Information, reporting and complaints
5.1 Introduction
5.2 Informal advice and assistance
5.3 Formal complaints
5.4 Who the sexual harassment was reported to
5.5 When the sexual harassment was reported
5.6 How the sexual harassment was finalised
5.7 Outcomes of complaints
5.8 Satisfaction with the process
5.9 Reasons for not reporting sexual harassment
5.10 Preferred source of information on sexual harassment


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Key findings

  • In 2008, only 16% of those who have been sexually harassed in the last five years in the workplace formally reported or made a complaint, compared to 32% in 2003.
  • For those who did not make a complaint in the 2008 national telephone survey:
    • − 43% didn’t think it was serious enough
    • − 15% were fearful of a negative impact on themselves
    • − 21% had a lack of faith in the complaint process
    • − 29% took care of the problem themselves
  • In 2008, 30% of respondents who experienced workplace sexual harassment in the last five years sought informal advice and assistance. Most commonly, respondents sought informal advice from their managers or supervisors (39%).


5.1 Introduction

[Sexual harassment] absolutely still is an issue and people have a fear of making a complaint because it is a career killer. You try and deal with it informally or you just get out.[51]

One of the main responses to sexual harassment is the pursuit of a complaint through grievance or complaints procedures, both within workplaces and through external complaints agencies such as the Australian Human Rights Commission.

This section analyses the findings of the national telephone survey on reporting and complaints in relation to sexual harassment, including whether respondents sought informal advice, whether a formal report was made and to whom it was made, when the sexual harassment was reported, how the complaint was finalised, the outcome of complaints and the level of satisfaction with the complaints process. The section also sets out where respondents would prefer to receive information about sexual harassment.

A note about this section

The survey results on the reporting of sexual harassment are drawn from extended interviews with respondents who experienced sexual harassment in the workplace in the last five years.

The 2008 data in this section includes respondents who reported experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace in the last five years based on the definition of sexual harassment and those who reported experiencing one or more behaviours in the workplace in the last five years that may amount to sexual harassment under the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth). The 2003 data includes respondents who reported sexual harassment in the workplace in the last five years based on the definition only.

The comparisons between the 2003 and 2008 should be interpreted with caution due to changes in methodology.


5.2 Informal advice and assistance

The 2003 national telephone survey found that only one in three people who experienced sexual harassment in the workplace in the last five years made a formal complaint, either in their workplace or through an external agency. In response to this finding, the 2008 survey included a new question asking respondents whether they sought any informal advice or assistance following the sexual harassment and from where it was sought.

The 2008 survey found that 30% of those who have been sexually harassed in the workplace in the last five years sought informal assistance or advice.[52] The most common sources of informal advice and assistance were managers and supervisors (39%), friends or family (24%) and co-workers (21%).[53]

This finding highlights the need for specific training of managers to enable them to effectively respond to sexual harassment, as it is likely they may be the first point of contact for employees. The fact that friends and family also feature as common sources of informal advice demonstrates the need for wider public education on identifying sexual harassment and taking appropriate action.

Table 1: Where respondents sought informal advice and assistance from
Did you seek informal advice? If yes, where from?
2008
Sample size = 67
Margin of error
+ 12%
Manager/Supervisor at work
39%
Friends or family
24%
Co-worker
21%
Employer/boss
13%
Co-worker more senior
6%
Human Resources Manager or equivalent
4%
Australian Human Rights Commission or State agency
3%
Union or Employee Representative
3%
Others
7%

5.3 Formal complaints

A concerning finding of the 2003 survey was the low level of formal complaints made by those who experienced sexual harassment. The number of complaints made has decreased from 32% in 2003 to 16% in 2008.[54] This finding highlights the need for employers to introduce strategies to increase the accessibility of complaints processes by employees.

Women who have experienced sexual harassment are more likely than men to make a formal complaint (19% of women, 9% of men). A possible explanation for this could be that women are likely to be more intimidated or offended by the harassment compared to men, as found in the 2008 national telephone survey.[55] Women may also more readily make a complaint because they are more likely to experience physical types of sexual harassment which may be perceived as more serious, also a finding of the 2008 national telephone survey.[56]

The majority of those who made formal complaints also sought informal advice. This shows that seeking informal advice is often a step towards making a formal complaint. This evidence suggests that employers should provide employees the option of seeking informal advice in a confidential setting as well as providing a complaints procedure to lodge a formal report.

5.4 Who the sexual harassment was reported to[57]

For those who made formal complaints, the majority were lodged with managers and employers. Since 2003, the proportion of formal complaints to a direct manager or supervisor has increased, while the number to employers, sexual harassment contact officers, human resource managers has decreased. This again highlights the need for direct managers and supervisors to receive specific training in effectively responding to sexual harassment in the workplace.

Figure 1: To whom the sexual harassment was reported[58]

 To whom the sexual harassment was reported

5.5 When the sexual harassment was reported[59]

The results of the 2008 national telephone survey indicate that, compared to 2003, those who make formal reports are making them sooner after the incident.[60] Over half of those who made complaints reported the incident immediately or the same/next working day, an increase from 31% who reported it within this timeframe in 2003.

Between the 2003 and 2008 surveys, there was a decrease in the number of respondents who waited one or more months to make a formal complaint.

5.6 How the sexual harassment was finalised[61]

In the 2008 national telephone survey, of those who lodged a formal complaint, the majority (56%) reported that their complaints were finalised between their boss and themselves. This represents an increase from 44% in 2003.[62] The number of complaints that were finalised between the employer and the respondent decreased from 27% to 14%.

In a similar way to the 2003 survey, a small number of respondents finalised complaints with external agencies such as with their union (3%), in court (3%) and via the police (3%).

Around 17% of respondents reported their complaints had not been finalised at the time the survey was conducted, a similar finding to 2003.

The 2008 survey asked respondents how long their complaints took to finalise, though this question was not asked in the 2003 survey. Contrary to common assumptions that formal complaints are lengthy processes, the 2008 survey found that, for those who make complaints, the majority are finalised immediately or within one month.

These results indicate that while fewer people are making complaints, for those who do complain, their complaints are finalised within the workplace in a short timeframe. This finding highlights the need for employers to build greater awareness and confidence amongst employees about complaints processes and how they work.


5.7 Outcomes of complaints[63]

The results from the 2008 national telephone survey show that employers are more likely to deal with harassers or the sexual harassment as an outcome of the complaints process, compared to 2003.

In 2008, 72% of those who made a complaint said one of the outcomes of their complaint was that the harasser or harassment was dealt with, compared to 59% in 2003. This includes:

  • harasser was spoken to
  • harasser was disciplined
  • harasser was dismissed
  • harasser formally warned
  • harasser was counselled
  • harasser was transferred or changed shifts
  • harasser was arrested.

While more severe outcomes such as the harasser being disciplined or dismissed were lower in 2008 compared to 2003, outcomes such as the harasser being spoken to or formally warned increased. This may be due to complaints generally being made sooner after the harassment or to greater awareness amongst managers and supervisors about the seriousness of sexual harassment.

A total of 22% of respondents who made a formal complaint reported that the outcome of their complaint resulted in a negative impact on them, compared to 16% in 2003.

This includes:

  • you were transferred or changed shifts
  • you resigned
  • you were dismissed
  • you were demoted
  • you were disciplined
  • you were laughed at and ostracised.

While the number of cases in which the harasser was dealt with increased between 2003 and 2008, the number of respondents who continued to experience a negative impact as a result of the complaints process shows that the fear of making a complaint due to a negative personal impact is justified. Some studies have calculated the cost of sexual harassment to employers by estimating the lost productivity, staff changeover and damage to reputation.[64] As well as effectively dealing with complaints, there is a strong business imperative for employers, in cooperation with relevant support agencies, to minimise the negative impact on those who experience it.

Table 2: Outcomes of complaints
Outcome
2003
2008
Harasser or harassment was dealt with (nett)
59%
72%
Negative impact on you (nett)
16%
22%
Nothing was done
13%
22%
Employer made changes to the workplace to prevent sexual harassment in the future
13%
17%
Employer apologised for allowing the harassment
7%
14%
The harasser apologised
10%
11%
The harassment stopped
3%
11%
Other
8%
6%

5.8 Satisfaction with the process[65]

Respondents were asked to rate their level of satisfaction with the complaints process, with one being not at all satisfied and five being extremely satisfied. On average, the level of satisfaction with the complaints process did not change between 2003 and 2008. In 2008, the average level of satisfaction was 3.1.[66]

Of those who made a formal complaint, 30% reported they were not satisfied at all with the process, and 26% said they were extremely satisfied. Overall more people were satisfied, than dissatisfied with the complaints process.

However, the significant portion of those who were dissatisfied with the process, coupled with the small number of people lodging formal complaints, calls for employers to improve complaints procedures and ensure they are accessible and transparent to those who use them.

5.9 Reasons for not reporting sexual harassment[67]

Those respondents who did not make a formal complaint were asked to provide reasons. Given that the large majority (84%) of those who experienced sexual harassment in the workplace in the last five years did not make a formal report, this information is critical to improving the use of complaints processes.

The most common reason (43%) for respondents not making a complaint was their perception that the behaviour was not serious enough. This finding is consistent with the finding that there is a lack of understanding of what sexual harassment is. If behaviours that are in fact sexual harassment are not identified as such, it is unsurprising that a large number of people believe those behaviours are not serious enough to be reported. It is also consistent with the proportionate increase in exclusively non-physical sexual harassment which may be perceived to be not as serious as physical sexual harassment.

Around one in five (21%) reported that they did not make a complaint because of a lack of faith in the complaints process. This included respondents saying that it was easier just to keep quiet; the complaints processes would be embarrassing; the complaint process would be difficult; they thought they would not be believed; they did not think things would change; they did not trust the people they could complain to or didn’t think anything would be done.

Around 29% of respondents took care of the problem themselves, a similar finding to 2003 (26%).

Further, 15% feared a negative impact on themselves including being too scared or frightened; the harasser being too senior; being treated as the wrong-doer; damage to reputation; and the fear that people would think they were over reacting.

These findings suggest that an increased awareness of the broad range of behaviours that may amount to sexual harassment under the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth) and consistent messages from the employer as to the seriousness of such behaviours, could increase the number of formal reports made. Employers should also clearly communicate how the complaints process works and provide case studies of finalised complaints to challenge any negative perceptions of complaints processes that may exist.

The results also indicate that employers need to better communicate that making a complaint will not result in further victimisation and take active steps to ensure this happens.

The significant number of people who took care of the problem themselves highlights the need for better support for targets of sexual harassment in addition to effective complaints processes. Direct managers should be trained in providing appropriate referrals to employee assistance counselling services or external counselling services where appropriate.

It should be noted that some categories can not be compared between 2003 and 2008 because the categories have been compiled differently.

Table 3: Reasons for not making a formal report
Reasons for not reporting
2003

n= 132
2008

n= 190
Didn’t think it was serious enough
31%
43%
Lack of faith in the complaint process
Unable to compare
21%
This includes:
Easier just to keep quiet
19%
8%
Complaint process would be embarrassing
4%
5%
Complaint process would be difficult
4%
3%
Thought I would not be believed
2%
3%
Would not change things
Did not think anything would be done (these responses combined in 2003)

13%
2%

1%
Didn’t trust the people I could complain too
1%
1%
Difficulties with the complaint process
26%
NA
Took care of problem myself
26%
29%
Fear of negative impact on me
Unable to compare
15%
This includes:
Too scared/frightened
3%
5%
Person too senior
6%
4%
People would treat me like I was the wrong doer
2%
2%
Damage to my reputation
2%
2%
Thought people would think I was over reacting
1%
3%
Afraid of getting fired
5%
3%
Would have negative impact at work
2%
-
Did not know how to handle the situation
1%
3%
Moved to another place of work
1%
2%
Sexual harassment is accepted in my workplace
1%
1%
Harasser was already being dealt with
1%
1%
I did not know who to report it too
2%
1%
Didn’t want to hurt the person who bothered me
3%
1%
Others
8%
3%

5.10 Preferred source of information on sexual harassment

All respondents were asked where they would prefer to receive information about sexual harassment if they were experiencing it.[68]

The internet was the most common preferred source of information with 45% of respondents selecting it as their first choice. A further 14% of respondents selected media, including print media, television and radio. The results show that 12% of respondents would prefer to receive information about sexual harassment within their workplace including from their human resource manager, employer or direct supervisor. Around 5% of respondents reported their friends and family would be their preferred source of information.

These findings support the need for a wide reaching education strategy on sexual harassment targeting the internet, the media and individual workplaces.


References

[51] Australian Human Rights Commission, Sex Discrimination Commissioner’s Listening Tour – Adelaide Business Consultation (2007).
[52] Sample size = 226, Margin of error + 6.5 %
[53] Sample size = 67, Margin of error + 12%
[54] Sample size = 226, Margin of error + 6.5 %.
[55] See 4.7 Severity of harassment.
[56] See 4.4 Gender differences in types of harassment.
[57] These results should be interpreted with caution. Sample size =36.
[58] These results should be interpreted with caution. Sample size =36.
[59] These results should be interpreted with caution. Sample size =36.
[60] These results should be interpreted with caution. Sample size =36.
[61] These results should be interpreted with caution. Sample size =36.
[62] These results should be interpreted with caution. Sample size =36.
[63] These results should be interpreted with caution. Sample size =36.
[64] L Fitzgerald et al, ' Antecedents and consequences of sexual harassment in organizations: A test of an integrated model' (1997) 82 Journal of Applied Psychology p.578; B Stanko and G Miller, 'Sexual harassment and government: Anecdotal evidence from the profession' (1996) 25(2) Public Personnel Management p.219. Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency, Harassment and Discrimination (2001-2007) available at http://www.eowa.gov.au/about_equal_opportunity/key_agenda_items/harassme....
[65] These results should be interpreted with caution. Sample size =36.
[66] These results should be interpreted with caution. Sample size =27.
[67]Sample size = 190, Margin of error + 7.1%.
[68] Sample size = 2005; Margin of error + 2.2% 95% confidence level.