Rebecca Richardson, ex-employee of software company Oracle, was recently awarded a measly $18,000 for 6 months of humiliating sexual harassment by a colleague. It was Oracle itself who had to foot the bill, being held vicariously liable for the conduct of its employee. This case may herald a softening in penalties related to sexual harassment in the workplace.
During the early days of their work relationship, Richardson and her project team member Randol Tucker disagreed on aspects of their work, causing tension between the two. Tucker was reported to have said “Gosh, Rebecca, you and I fight so much… I think we must have been married in our last life.” This comment was followed a few days later by “How do you think our marriage was? I bet the sex was hot.” Tucker also said words to the effect of “I love your legs in that skirt. I’m going to be thinking about them wrapped around me all day long,” and “I love it when you’re mean to me. It just makes me think how hot you would be in bed.” He also repeatedly asked her out, despite Ms Richardson’s steadfast rejection of his advances.
Employers are generally liable for the conduct of employees in the course of their employment. The Sex Discrimination Act 1984 stipulates that this responsibility can only be discharged where the company took all reasonable steps to prevent the employee from the unlawful conduct. Even though Oracle had online sexual harassment training programs and investigation procedures in place, Justice Buchanan decided this did not meet the standard of “all reasonable steps.”
Justice Buchanan did somewhat reward Oracle for good behaviour: it was proven that Oracle’s HR department had Ms Richardson’s interests at heart and that there was no evidence of intent to harm Ms Richardson or of a disregard for her interests. Oracle had made efforts to deal with sexual harassment in the workplace, and although their training methods were deemed to be somewhat ineffective, most employees had done their best to support Ms Richardson as well as to objectively investigate Mr Tucker’s conduct.
The real shock was that Justice Buchanan refused to award damages for economic loss, even though Ms Richardson felt she was inadvertently forced to leave Oracle after reporting the harassment. This belief was based on the fact that she was moved to a different project after stating she no longer wanted to work with Mr Tucker. She felt this move was a demotion. Despite this, His Honour decided that there was not enough evidence to support Ms Richardson’s claim that Oracle had breached its legal obligations to her as an employee.
From this case, employers might begin to think that the days of huge sexual harassment payouts are over. However, employers should note that it was positive, effective HR management that saved Oracle from the same fate as corporations like David Jones. Managers beware: take harassment claims seriously!