Victorian councils failing to provide workplaces that are free from sexual harassment, audit finds

By Shannon Jenkins

Wednesday December 9, 2020


More than one in four Victorian local government staff and councillors have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, the state auditor-general has found.

The Victorian Auditor-General’s Office investigated the prevalence and nature of sexual harassment in councils in its latest report, tabled on Wednesday. Councils’ policies, training and communication, and the effectiveness of their complaint handling were also examined.

VAGO audited five councils — Ararat, Corangamite, Frankston, Latrobe and Moreland — and conducted a survey receiving nearly 10,000 responses from staff and councillors from across 75 councils.

The report noted 28% of council employees and councillors have experienced sexual harassment at work in the 12 months to June 2020.

“Councils are not providing workplaces that are free from sexual harassment,” it said.

While employees from all roles and levels said they had experienced sexual harassment, VAGO found those at greater risk were:

  • People from the LGBTQIA+ community, with 48% having experienced sexual harassment,
  • Women aged between 18 and 34 (42%),
  • People with disability (41%).

Harassers were most likely to be a co-worker at the same level (41%), or more senior level (33%), the audit found.

However, 45% of customer-facing employees who had experienced sexual harassment said that a member of the public had harassed them.

“Additionally, some survey respondents said there is a culture of accepting harassment from the public as part of providing customer service,” the report said.

The only council which mentioned harassment from customers or the public in its sexual harassment policy was Ararat.

Sexual harassment in councils was most likely to occur during day-to-day work. The most common types of sexual harassment were intrusive questions about the employee’s personal life or appearance, sexually suggestive comments or jokes, and inappropriate staring or “leering”.

The report noted 45% of respondents who experienced sexual harassment said they were negatively impacted. A quarter of respondents who experienced sexual harassment said it negatively impacted their mental health, and one in five said it lowered their self-esteem and confidence.

One respondent said it had made them feel like their work was not valued, while another said:

“I left a fantastic position with higher pay and views of promotion for a lower paid position in a council far from home.”

Councils have failed to regularly survey employees about their experiences of sexual harassment at work, or categorise complaints in a way that allows them to identify trends in sexual harassment, the audit found.

The report noted that there are no regular surveys about sexual harassment or workplace conduct for the local government sector, unlike in the Victorian public service.

“As a result, aside from our survey, councils have no visibility over the sexual harassment that occurs in their workplaces. Without this information, councils cannot plan and implement the actions necessary to protect their employees or identify trends,” it said.

Under the current circumstances, councils will also struggle to comply with their new obligations under the Gender Equality Act 2020. The law requires councils to measure and report on their progress on seven gender equality indicators from June 2021.

To tackle this, VAGO made a recommendation to the Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions, to “coordinate discussions with relevant state government authorities, local government peak bodies and councils about the development of a regular data collection methodology to measure the sector-wide prevalence and nature of sexual harassment”.

Read more: Victoria appoints first gender equality commissioner

While the councils provided training to staff on appropriate behaviour, the audit found the training to be ineffective because:

  • Most staff only complete online refresher courses, so they miss out on the “open discussion and in-depth content” of face-to-face training,
  • Training materials don’t cover how bystanders can intervene or challenge inappropriate behaviour,
  • Four councils don’t tailor training to reflect their own policies and procedures,
  • Three councils don’t provide training for managers on how to respond to complaints of sexual harassment.

The report noted that while councils have the tools that could prevent sexual harassment in the workplace, they don’t use them to their full advantage.

“A lack of comprehensive policies, training and communication means councils rarely engage staff in meaningful conversations about sexual harassment and its drivers,” it said.

“This creates a culture where victims lack confidence to report their experiences. For those who do report, complaint handling is undermined by poor documentation and councils’ failure to encourage and support complainants.”

VAGO made 11 recommendations to Victorian councils, all of which were accepted.

Read more: No government department is free from sexual harassment. Five ideas for tackling it in the public sector


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