Pursuit of co-worker costs employer $170,000 in sexual harassment claim

Public news

A female worker was employed as a paralegal and assistant in a small law firm and her employer, a male, sent her dozens of emails containing inappropriate content such as:

  • “meant a lot to me not just professionally that you have come into my life”
  • “it is clear we both like each other personally and well, you know a lot of relationships started in the work environment, something like 60 per cent plus according to a report on the ABC”.
  • “As you know, you have inspired me but I need to say I have not been on dates and well, I got excited when you seemed interested in me.”
  • “It’s hard for me to not think of you”
  • “You know you were romantically interested in me but I wanted to make sure that we could work together if it did not work out.”
  • “I also really love you and I think you like me too.”

During a work trip away, she entered her room as he was lying on her bed in his underwear.

When she complained, the employer sent further emails denying that his conduct was “inappropriate” and saying he had not put any “pressure” on her nor had he “harassed” her.

Unsurprisingly, the judge rejected those arguments and ordered that the law firm pay her $120,000 in general damages and a further $50,000 in aggravated damages. The employee had suffered a psychiatric injury that had affected her markedly.

What are the lessons?

  • First, sexual harassment cannot be excused by professions of “genuine love” or “real affection”.
  • Secondly, the totality of the conduct is looked at by the Court, rather than a minute examination of individual events.
  • Thirdly, the Court will consider the conduct from the perspective of the recipient, and the employer will be liable for what is said and done by its employees.
  • Finally, awards for breaching the Sex Discrimination Act can be enormous, and generally such awards are uninsurable. The business has to pay the damages, which in this case are obviously crippling.

The MTA is here to assist members with policies and procedures that will assist in maintaining a safe, harmonious and litigation free environment.

Please contact the WR department by clicking here for help in this, or any workplace, matter.