When considering the prevalence of workplace sexual harassment and the scale of underreporting through formal channels, it becomes apparent just how important it is for employers to ensure their reporting and investigation processes promote speaking up if they are to prevent sexual harassment.

The 2018 ARHC survey of workplace sexual harassment reported that most victims do not report the incident. Barriers to reporting include:

  • A belief that nothing will be done
  • Unsure of whether the behaviour is unacceptable
  • Not wanting the perpetrator to be punished
  • Fear of retaliation
  • Fear of not being believed
  • No clear process in place
  • Shame/embarrassment
  • Concerns about privacy

Traditional approaches to managing disclosures of sexual harassment are ineffective, distrusted by workers, and may be damaging to victims. For example, reporting mechanisms limited to formal investigations can intimidate or overwhelm a complainant. Also, resolution processes that seek to minimise the organisation’s legal and reputation risk by silencing the victim, responses that dismiss/minimise/challenge concerns raised, sanctions that vary depending on a respondent’s power and influence, lengthy investigations and resolution processes, and processes that require complainants to repeat their story multiple times can be disempowering and traumatising.

The management of reports of workplace misconduct can cause significant harm to involved parties if not implemented with careful practice. If parties experience harm as a result of the process, the feeling of betrayal and powerlessness can be especially acute, resulting in re-traumatisation. Re-traumatisation is any situation or environment that resembles an individual’s trauma literally or symbolically, which then triggers feelings and reactions associated with the original trauma. The potential for re-traumatisation exists in all steps of the grievance process, from disclosure, investigation, reporting, support, determination, and actions taken as a result of the investigation.

Re-traumatisation is often unintentional. Some obvious practices could be re-traumatising, such as victimisation; however, less apparent practices or situations that involve specific types of interactions or similarities to the original trauma may cause individuals to feel re-traumatised. For example, questions that imply the individual was responsible for the experience or could have done something to prevent it. Also, denying the individual control over disclosures or having them continually repeat their story.

The risk of re-traumatisation is heightened when interacting with individuals with a history of historical, inter-generational and cultural trauma experiences. For example, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, members of other cultural and ethnic minority groups, people who identify as LBTIQ, people with a disability, and women previously subjected to gender-based violence. The intersection of those identities further increases the likelihood of experiencing chronic and sustained trauma.

Re-traumatisation is a significant concern, as individuals who are traumatised multiple times frequently have exacerbated trauma-related symptoms compared to those who have experienced a single trauma. Trauma compromises the effectiveness of a workplace investigation by affecting one’s memory of the experience and ability to recall details. Trauma can also trigger unexpected emotional reactions that influence investigators’ beliefs about the likelihood or severity of an incident and compromise objectivity. Also, trauma affects an individual’s sense of self, their sense of others and their beliefs about the world. These beliefs can directly impact an individual’s ability or motivation to connect with and utilise support services. Individuals with multiple trauma experiences often are less willing to engage in the complaints process. Processes that do no further harm to people’s wellbeing build trust and confidence to report.

A trauma-informed investigations process responds to the risks of trauma by changing policies, procedures and practices to promote engagement with the process, encourage the use of support services, support recall of events, reduce the potential for re-traumatisation, and support individual trauma for all parties including those directly or indirectly affected. The intention of trauma-informed care is not to treat symptoms or issues related to sexual, physical or emotional abuse or any other form of trauma but rather to provide support services in a way that is accessible and appropriate to those who may have experienced trauma and that does no further harm. Doing so encourages those subjected to gender-based violence and other workplace incivility and misconduct to come forward with the confidence that they will be safe and supported. A trauma-informed approach also increases the quality of information collected in an investigation by gathering information from potentially traumatised parties in a way that is more effective than traditional investigative techniques, manages bias, and considers all evidence from both parties fairly.

A trauma-informed approach adheres to six fundamental principles rather than a prescribed set of practices or procedures in the context of an investigation:

  • Safety—physical, emotional and cultural safety (e.g., privacy, protection from victimisation, not having to repeat stories)
  • Trust—all operations and decisions are conducted with expertise, transparency, confidentiality, fairly, and in a timely manner
  • Voice—reporters have a choice over when they speak (e.g., there is no timeframe on reporting, consider the risks of routinely using NDAs, and ensure access to referral agencies, including the police as appropriate)
  • Collaboration—reduce power differentials through shared decision-making (although the reporter might not have the final say)
  • Peer support—regular and consistent emotional support and guidance, including access to relevant external support
  • Empowerment—provide multiple reporting pathways, centre the experience on the reporter and seek their input on how to resolve the issue (although they might not have the final say.
  • Cultural, historical and gender issues—guard against bias, and recognise the risk of pre-existing/complex trauma is higher for some groups

The AHRC’s Respect@Work framework draws on trauma-informed principles to prescribe a person-centred response to disclosures. A person-centred approach is about putting the safety, support and wellbeing of all parties involved (including the complainant, bystanders/witnesses, and other involved parties) at the centre of processes and decision-making in response to sexual harassment.  A person-centred approach differs from a system-based approach.

Person-centred reporting process:

  • Talking with the person
  • Listening to the person
  • Planning with the person
  • Focus on individual needs, wishes and circumstances
  • Finding solutions that work for the individual
  • Understanding a person’s context (for example considering power dynamics)
  • Respecting the person’s position in the organisation as equal

System-centred reporting process:

  • Talking about the person
  • Directing and instructing the person
  • Planning for the person
  • Focus on a person’s environment, weaknesses, and impact on the organisation
  • Applying broad and blanket solutions tailored for the organisation
  • Applying broad contextual/organisational understandings of the situation
  • Consideration of positional hierarchy as a factor in determining a solution

Source: Respect@Work[1]

Infusing trauma-informed care and harm reduction strategies is critical when employers implement new policies, update their old ones, and launch educational and support campaigns regarding respect at work. The principles should be embedded into processes and practices for reporting, investigations, resolution processes and support mechanisms.

Of note, employers should have multiple resolution pathways to provide victims with a choice over how they raise concerns and have them dealt with. As described by Respect@Work[2], resolution pathways should include:

  • Early intervention—covers a range of actions that can be taken to diffuse a live situation or prevent an incident once a risk has been identified. For example, victim-led and managed (assuming they feel safe to do so), tap-on-the-shoulder conversation, third-party intervention, distraction, and/or victim-support.
  • Informal pathways—focus on resolution and opportunities for the harasser to cease the behaviour without requiring an investigation on the ‘truth’ of the concern raised. For example, a facilitated conversation, manager intervention, environmental or systems changes, or a risk review.
  • Formal pathways—using processes, such as a formal investigation, and the making of factual findings to determine the truth and substantiate what did and did not occur, and the application of disciplinary and risk control measures if substantiated.
  • External pathways—direction to federal and state bodies such as the Australian Human Rights Commission and the Fair Work Commission.

As noted above, resolution processes should focus on not just disciplinary outcomes but also behavioural and systemic change. All disclosures should be reviewed through a risk management lens to determine whether the organisation needs to adjust or implement new control measures.

Employers should also reinforce behavioural expectations and strengthen messaging on the reporting processes in response to any incidents.

For further guidance on reporting and resolution processes, employers are directed to:

  • Respect@Work’s recommendations regarding a people-centred approach[3] , reporting channels[4], and responding to matters including those that might be criminal[5]
  • Champions of Change Coalition, Disrupting the System – Preventing and Responding to Sexual Harassment in the Workplace[6]

[1] https://www.respectatwork.gov.au/organisation/response/support/person-centred-approaches-workplace-sexual-harassment

[2] https://www.respectatwork.gov.au/organisation/response/reporting/resolution-pathways

[3] https://www.respectatwork.gov.au/organisation/response/support/person-centred-approaches-workplace-sexual-harassment

[4] https://www.respectatwork.gov.au/organisation/response/reporting/reporting-avenues

[5] https://www.respectatwork.gov.au/organisation/response/reporting/resolution-pathways

[6] https://championsofchangecoalition.org/resource/disrupting-the-system/