An employer has been ordered to pay over $300,000 in compensation – plus legal costs – to its employee after she was found to have been sexually harassed at work.
In a case heard in late 2015, Amanda Collins gave evidence of the sexual harassment she had to endure from her manager and owner of the local Post Office where she worked, David Smith. Mr Smith pestered Ms Collins for sex, offered to pay her money if she would let him engage with her in sexual behaviour, send lewd text messages and wrote a poem in a card to her, begging for sex.
The issue of compensation was not decided at the same time as the finding of sexual harassment, as there was an issue about whether compensation could be awarded under the Equal Opportunity Act 2010 (Act). The employer argued that compensation for unlawful discrimination and sexual harassment under this Act was restricted by provisions of the Accident Compensation Act 1985 and the Workplace Injury Compensation Act 2013. The Tribunal dismissed this argument as ‘misconceived’ and ‘without merit’, confirming that all three pieces of legislation ‘can comfortably coexist’.
Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) Vice-President Judge Jenkins has now proceeded to award Ms Collins $332,280 in damages. Despite parties generally bearing their own costs in anti-discrimination cases, the Judge made the rare decision to order Mr Smith, as the employer, to pay all of Ms Collins’ legal costs in this instance. The quantum of Ms Collins’ costs is still being assessed, but is likely to be substantial.
A trend towards higher compensation
The level of compensation awarded in this case follows the pattern that was established by the Full Bench of the Federal Court in Richardson v Oracle, which was seen as a ‘ground-breaking’ case in terms of setting the benchmark for awards of compensation to employees who bring successful claims of sexual harassment.
In Collins v Smith, VP Judge Jenkins emphasised that ‘changing community attitudes to the adverse consequences of sexual harassment extend beyond the loss of employment to include severe psychological illness, relationship breakdown and negative impacts on general health and well-being’.
This decision highlights for all employers the need to ensure that their workforce has a clear understanding of the behaviours that are deemed unacceptable in the workplace. Financial penalties notwithstanding, the detrimental impact on the health and well-being of affected workers should be the key motivating factor for all responsible employers.