Welcome to Sisters In Law, news.com.au’s weekly column solving all of your legal problems. This week, our resident lawyers and real-life sisters Alison and Jillian Barrett from Maurice Blackburn help a woman who says her boss’ creepy and inappropriate behaviour is making her feel “incredibly uncomfortable”.
My boss is an older man who let’s say has more “traditional” ways of thinking about gender roles. I’ve worked for him for 18 months and have previously seen him as harmless if a little sexist. However, he has recently become creepy in his behaviour. He often comments on how I look saying he likes my outfit or that I look “cute today” which I saw as inappropriate. Then, it was my birthday recently as he bought me a voucher for a sex toy website with the note “A little something for the weekend x”. It made me feel incredibly uncomfortable and I gave it back to him saying “thank you but I don’t think it’s right for a boss to gift this kind of thing.” He took it quite badly and said I’d “humiliated” him. What’s the best thing for me to do in this situation? I love my job and don’t want to make things difficult for myself but I think he needs to stop. – Kerry, 27, NSW
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Kerry, the behaviour of your boss is inappropriate and you are right in wanting it to stop.
Sexual harassment is any unwelcome behaviour of a sexual nature that makes you feel offended, humiliated or intimidated. It can be physical, verbal or written harassment.
As your boss’ comments and the gift are unwanted by you, and of a sexual nature, it’s sexual harassment, which is against the law.
Other behaviour that would be considered sexual harassment include:
• Intrusive questions about your private life or physical appearance that make you feel offended
• Repeated or inappropriate invitations to go out on dates
• Inappropriate staring or leering that makes you feel intimidated
• Sexually suggestive jokes or comments, for example about your appearance
It’s important to know the intent behind these actions is irrelevant. Your boss may say things like, “I didn’t mean anything by it, I was trying to be kind.” Whatever the intent, it’s still sexual harassment.
The same applies to your boss’ feelings in this situation, him feeling humiliated is entirely irrelevant to his behaviour.
You have the right to go to work every day and feel safe and your employer is responsible to ensure this occurs.
From a legal perspective to determine whether your boss’ behaviour was sexual harassment, the following must be considered:
• Whether it was an unwelcome sexual advance or conduct of a sexual nature towards you
• A reasonable person would have anticipated the possibility that you would be offended, humiliated or intimidated
If you are comfortable doing so, you should firstly speak with your boss and let him know his comments and gift made feel you uncomfortable and it needs to stop.
• If you don’t feel comfortable raising it with him, consider going to his boss or a senior colleague to ask them to raise it with him.
You should also check whether there are any workplace policies regarding harassment as these would outline what you need to do to make a complaint.
If the behaviour continues, or you don’t feel comfortable speaking with your boss, then you can lodge a complaint or claim with Anti-Discrimination New South Wales. You may be entitled to compensation if you’ve had economic or non-economic loss and damage. Anti-Discrimination New South Wales provides some free information about this process.
If you are treated unfairly after you’ve complained, this is victimisation and is also against the law.
If the sexual harassment escalates to be serious or you are made to feel threatened in any way, then you should report it to the NSW Police.
To help you in making a complaint, keep records of any interactions with your boss that make you feel uncomfortable, including things like notes, text messages and emails. Even a photograph of the gift he gave you will be useful.
It’s also important to keep a record of any conversations you have with your boss or colleagues about the inappropriate behaviour.
Sexual harassment in the workplace can also have serious consequences for your health and wellbeing. If you think your health is suffering, you should discuss it with your GP and get some appropriate medical advice.
This legal information is general in nature and should not be regarded as specific legal advice or relied upon. Persons requiring particular legal advice should consult a solicitor.
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