By The Editor
A former case manager at a disability services organisation has been awarded $2,000 compensation after a co-worker’s unwanted hugs were judged to constitute sexual harassment.
The 62-year-old man took his former employer to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal after he was dismissed for possessing confidential information about employee pay rates, alleging that a female colleague sexually harassed him by putting her arms around him in an unwanted manner and making sexually explicit comments to him.
The man said he had repeatedly told his colleague that he didn’t appreciate the hugs, and a witness said she heard the man repeatedly tell the woman this fact on a number of occasions.
The employer told the tribunal that they ran a “huggy” workplace where employees often embraced each other for support and comfort, and denied that it constituted sexual harassment.
The tribunal ruled that the hugs were unwanted and “physically intimate”, and thus were classified as “unwelcome conduct”.
“[The employer] submitted that no reasonable person would view the alleged conduct as being offensive, and that the sexual harassment legislation is not designed to address such trivialities nor to sterilise the workplace from harmless displays of care and respect between colleagues,” Member Elisabeth Wentworth said in her judgment.
“I do not accept that the conduct was trivial, or that it was a harmless display of care and respect.”
The case has important connotations for workplaces, especially those with somewhat different or unusual cultures, and how various employees might interpret accepted behaviour.
“[The man] did not accede to every aspect of the workplace culture and found some aspects of it unwelcome,” Member Wentworth said. “Workplace culture is no excuse for tolerating conduct that is unwelcome for some and which otherwise constitutes sexual harassment.”