Whistleblowers like Amy Taeuber need our protection

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Amy Taeuber was a cadet for Seven in Adelaide.

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Don’t think of Amy Taeuber as a victim. Please don’t think of her that way.

She’s a whistleblower, treated in precisely the same way as other whistleblowers. Feeling shamed, humiliated. Standard practice for those who have spoken out. What happened to Amy Taeuber, then a cadet journalist at Channel Seven in Adelaide, happens to women at work every day. And only managers, chief executives, chairs can decide if they will tolerate this one more day.


Seven Network dismisses cadet following harassment complaint

Amy Taeuber claims she was let go after she made a sexual harassment complaint against an older male colleague. Vision: 7:30 Report, ABC.

In Louise Milligan’s brilliant ABC 7.30 story on Monday night, we hear Taeuber’s recording of a meeting with human resources. It comes soon after she has complained about a senior colleague who has made personal remarks about her appearance and her sexuality. Taeuber had the presence of mind to make a recording. The HR person claims there are allegations about Taeuber’s behaviour, including harassment of a fellow cadet. That person had never made a complaint.

Taeuber’s support person is ejected from the meeting before any discussion and the young cadet leaves the building that day never to return.

Ever had to make a complaint about a senior person in your organisation? Being at the bottom of the pecking order and reporting the inappropriate behaviour of a senior colleague is hard because no one believes you. You’ve been there a short time and the perpetrators have accrued connections and cultural capital over their careers. You want it to stop, but it won’t. People keep telling you that you haven’t got a sense of humour.

The Australian Human Rights Commission’s most recent report into sexual harassment in 2012 said more than one in five of us have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace – with many more women than men as victims. A new survey begins next year.

Nearly every woman I know has experienced the unacceptable at work. A comment, an act of physical violence (a friend’s former boss slapped her across the fingers with a ruler), constant sexual remarks framed as a joke. Yet the culture continues in workplaces across Australia and leaders let this behaviour continue. Sara Charlesworth is one of Australia’s leading researchers into sexual harassment and sees little improvement in the culture of Australian companies. She says there is a common chain of events where the employer seeks to find a way to make the victim the organisational problem to be fixed and often but not always use the excuse of poor performance in penalising or sacking the victim

With Paula McDonald from QUT, she examined a six-month period of complaints to Australia’s nine human rights commissions and, overwhelmingly, the issue was this: employers sought to get rid of the complainant instead of the offender. How is that right or just? How on earth do we permit human resources departments to oversee this kind of behaviour? Every person I spoke to on Monday recommended never ever going alone to a meeting with human resources.

Charlesworth of RMIT says cases like Taeuber’s have a chilling effect on other complainants, but we must act to support victims and challenge the culture where we can.

What happens to those who complain?

“In the wash-up of several high-profile cases of women in the law, in banking and in retail, the women who made the complaints never worked in their industry again,” she says.

I’ve been writing about this for years, but the stories still horrify me. The woman who was raped at a function at her work complained. Sacked a few days later. The young admin assistant who left her good entry-position job because she was too frightened of her boss, who would press his erect penis into her bottom whenever he had the opportunity, which was mostly while she was at the photocopier.

Or Kate Mathews, who worked for Winslow Constructors. A court heard that when she was cleaning out a drainage pit one of her workmates came up behind her and “grabbed her by the hips” and “performed a sexual act on her, or acted it”.

I asked Amber Harrison, whose relationship with Seven West Media’s chief executive Tim Worner ended up in a high-profile court case, what she thought generally about the culture of workplaces.

“It is pretty black-and-white. You challenge someone who is in the club and you do that in a way that threatens them, then you are singled out and they are after you and they come to get you. This is a strategy,” she says.

Employment lawyer Josh Bornstein, a principal at Maurice Blackburn, says sexual harassment is never handled well in Australia.

“We have poor managers in this country. People panic at the very mention [of sexual harassment] and they don’t like the hard conversations.”

But he sees Taeuber as a whistleblower too, much like Benjamin Koh, the former chief medical officer of Comminsure. And whistleblowers need our protection.

Jenna Price is a Fairfax Media columnist.

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