07 July 2009

LEGAL - A win for all women workers over Bullying and Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

The case of Malgorzata Poniatowska against her employer for sexual harassment is a win for victims of workplace bullying and sexual harassment.

Ms Poniatowska ought to be congratulated for her courage, principles and determination to take on her employer despite the uncertainty of success and the possibility of having to bear a costs order along with her own legal costs.

Workplace bullying, sexual harassment and racial discrimination, like sexual abuse cases, are particularly difficult to prove. The evidence in Ms Poniatowska's case comprised emails and telephone text messages, which supported her assertions of her colleagues' unwelcomed and unwanted attention.

Very often workplace bullying and sexual harassment is more covert, with few eye witnesses and documentary evidence to support the allegations.

Victims are often reluctant to take on colleagues and their employer due to embarrassment and fear of a backlash.

Victims are often made to feel it is their fault if unwelcome attention from a colleague of the opposite gender is paid to them, or that they had somehow contributed to the behaviour of the offender, as in the case of Ms Poniatowska

Such victimisation can include adverse performance review, alienation and many other negative attacks on a victim, such that it increases their stress levels and decreases their self-worth.

Harassment or bullying can be doled out in small doses to a victim and each act may be explained away as nothing more than perhaps workplace banter or camaraderie, but the cumulative effect may build a picture of harassment over a period of time.

More often than not a victim is advised not to pursue legal action, with all the attendant costs and stress, and the risk of damage to reputation. However, when a course of conduct is examined, it can paint an insidious picture which may compel a victim to pursue legal redress.

Some employers pay lip service to workplace bullying and sexual harassment and think that having published policies is sufficient to discharge their obligations of fair work practices.

Others are adept in having processes which appear to comply with the corporate policies, but it is the culture of the workplace which has to be policed for such practices to be stemmed.

Zero tolerance to workplace bullying and sexual harassment, in addition to legislative safeguards, is the only certainty that such odious behaviour may be redressed.


Readers comments

  • Frank
  • June 29, 2009
  • 11:29 PM

The reality of workplace abuse be it, sexual, bullying or harassment by a boss against an employee is that a victim is up against the odds from the beginning and the employer knows this. For a whole range of reasons, one being the power imbalance, a resourceful employer can outspend a litigant or complainant. When all else fails, a heartless, callous and vindictive employer, motivated as they were in my case by my complaints to Worksafe regarding the dangerous working conditions, can attempt to "shift" the responsibility of their actions by claiming wrong doing, incompetence or a range of other lies in order to justify their behavior.

In my case I was sacked after a number of years of abuse. I was not the only victim. My boss however was such an accomplished liar, she managed to so muddy the waters with her own claims of abuse against her, most of which were either just imagined or were contrived, Worksafe, the state body empowered to investigate and take action, did effectively nothing. So my warning is this. If you are thinking of making a complaint to Worksafe regarding workplace bullying, harassment and lack of the duty of care, think again. When push comes to shove Worksafe is a toothless tiger with little real motivation to protect workers. The very best advice I can give when faced with a workplace bully, discrimination, harassment or other unacceptable and/or inappropriate behavior is, for your own mental health, look for another job away from these psychopaths.

The legal option will cost thousands if not hundreds of thousand of dollars with no guarantee of the outcome going your way regardless of the righteousness of your cause.

If you work for a corporation, just forget it.


I agree. Sometimes it is far better to walk away and hold your head high than to challenge the bullying and unsavoury behaviour. Colleagues who are wary of their own positions do not have the courage of their conviction to support the person bullied but usually align themselves with the boss to curry favour or promotion.
The costs of litigating and to one's sanity is too much a price to pay.Then even if one wins, one may have to continue to work with the same people unless the workplace is big enough for one to work in a different section.


  • Wordsworth
  • June 28, 2009
  • 07:57 PM

A very basic question to the perpetrators of workplace bullying and sexual harrasment might just be: Would you like it to be done to you, the same way you are doing it to someone else? The somewhat rhetorical answer only confirms the lack of intelligence by those who engage in bullying and sexual harrasment, and later seek to explain their actions under the guise of 'culture' or psychology. As a society, we need to stamp this out completely with a 'zero-tolerance' approach. If we put up with any notion of it and not prosecute those who offend, what is that saying about us as a society? Is there room for compassion when it comes to sexual harrassment and workplace bullying? There are grey areas, yes, but sometimes, we need to draw a line firmly in the sand and legislate to protect accordingly. For the protection of our wives, daughters, girlfriends, boyfriends, husbands, parents and the like who might just come across such untenable situations. And then what? Prevention is better than cure, and action speaks louder than words.


agree totally. zero tolerance is the way to stamp out these sort of behaviour.


  • Rob
  • June 25, 2009
  • 08:51 AM


you state that there should be 'zero tolerance to sexual harassment, in addition to legislative safeguards', which is fair enough.

However in your column about sexual discrimination against women breast feeding, you stated that 'women have to stand up to unreasonable discriminatory behaviour and assert their rights. If we have to rely on laws...we perpetuate the belief that we are not capable of asserting our rights without the protection of the law and that we are inferior to men.'

Since both these are issues of harassment of women, how do you explain your apparent double standard?

one is the natural given right of a woman to breastfeed a baby wherever and whenever she likes. The other is a workplace right where each person in a work environment has to know their rights vis-a-vis colleagues and employer.
Sexual harassment and workplace bullying is not limited to just the female employees but can be practised against male employees. Legislative safeguards will ensure that all employees are protected, irrespective of gender.


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