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Hotel chain to contribute to $313,000 in damages after workplace sexual assault: Lessons for employers

By Alan J. McDonald


In the wake of QCAT awarding damages for a sexual assault case, Smart Company discusses the importance of explaining workplace policies on work trips with McDonald Murholme Senior Associate Trent Hancock.

See below article for further details

Hotel chain to contribute to $313,000 in damages after workplace sexual assault: Lessons for employers

A hotel chain has been ordered to contribute $313,000 in damages after an employee alleged she was sexually assaulted by a colleague, but while the amount is significant, lawyers say the outcome of cases in this area vary from state to state.

Queensland Civil and Administrative Tribunal (QCAT) member Ann Fitzpatrick decided on the damages last month after the employee launched legal action claiming she was sexually assaulted while staying at a hotel owned by her employer in 2010 when she was 21. The accommodation was offered to her when she relocated to Brisbane to work, reports news.com.au.

The applicant told QCAT she shared an apartment with the hotel’s night manager, who was close to 70 at the time, and that he entered her room naked at 5:00am one morning and groped her.

QCAT accepted evidence that the incident had caused prolonged psychological stress to the employee, who was unable to return to work until 2015. Fitzpatrick found it was not reasonable to argue that the employee could have elected to live in alternative accommodation instead of with the caretaker.

The incident was found to have occurred during the course of the employee’s work, and as such, both the business and the manager were ordered to contribute to the $313,000 in damages for the employee.

The business and individuals cannot be named in this case due to a non-publication order.

Think carefully about accommodation when relocating staff

Shane Koelmeyer, director at Workplace Law, says cases of this nature are decided on a state-by-state basis, and while damages of this amount are not usually seen, the QCAT’s decision doesn’t automatically influence how similar cases are resolved in other states.

“We couldn’t say that what has been determined by QCAT would necessarily translate to what people in Victoria or New South Wales would be mindful of,” he told SmartCompany.

However, in general terms, Koelmeyer says businesses should be careful to consult with staff and lay out expectations before relocating employees or suggesting accommodation.

“The lesson I took out here is looking more at when you’re having an employees living together, what rules you should have in place,” Koelmeyer says.

“Think about the appropriateness of the accommodation, think about whether it’s shared, if it is to be provided by the employers.”

Consultation on where a staff member might live in the course of relocating should happen before anyone agrees to the move and have consideration for what is appropriate for the workers involved, he says.

“Make sure that you have that established at the outset.”

McDonald Murholme senior associate Trent Hancock agrees it is important for employers to let employees know that expected standards of behaviour can apply beyond the usual place of work.

Explicitly communicating these expectations and where they apply is critical for all businesses.

“It’s certainly important for employers to sit down with employees and say ‘this applies in the workplace’,” Hancock says.

Reference: ‘Hotel chain to contribute to $313,000 in damages after workplace sexual assault: Lessons for employers’, Smart Company, 20 January 2017.