Clayton UTZ has reached a confidential settlement with a former junior employee Solicitor Bridgette Styles. Styles had launched legal proceedings in a NSW Supreme Court claiming $200,000 in damages for sexual harrassment and defamation.
After the case was settled, Darryl McDonough, chief executive partner at Clayton UTZ, stated he was very pleased the law firm had resolved the dispute with Styles, and publicly commented on Styles’ good legal skills, wishing her well in her future legal career. This was a far cry from the way in which Styles’ initial complaints were dealt with internally by the Workplace Relations Group who allegedly victimised her, subjecting her to meetings demanding responses to the substance of the complaints she had raised, prior to her employment with the law firm finally being suspended.
Styles alleged in the NSW Supreme Court proceedings that she was subjected to a hostile work environment when a workplace romance with a colleague called Luis Izzo came to an end, leading to several upsetting repercussions. According to Styles a number of incidents ensued which led her to feel sexually harrassed in the workplace.
Styles told the NSW Supreme Court that after enduring these upsetting events she told Izzo she was going to inform the law partner in charge of the firm’s workplace relations group of the pattern of incidents.
All firms, particularly legal firms, should have internal mechanisms for dealing with incidents of bullying, sexual harassment, victimisation and other occupational health and safety issues. Admittedly, such claims can become complex, particularly where they concern harassment and bullying allegations being made against an Employee who should have some right to know of the nature of the allegations and an opportunity to put forward a response as a matter of natural justice.
Styles claimed however that when Izzo was informed that she intended to bring her concerns to the Head of the Workplace Relations Group, that he proceeded to write what she alleges was a defamatory file note relating to her.
After the file note was produced to Catanzariti, Styles’ says she was further victimised, by being subjected to numerous meetings at which responses were demanded of her relating to the allegations surrounding her complaints. Her employment was suspended and finally terminated.
The firm vigorously denied having engaged in any form of sexual harassment or victimisation of Styles during the Court proceedings and accused Styles of failing to report the harassment at the time she was suffering it. It isn’t unusual for victims of workplace harassment and bullying to remain silent in the face of workplace bullying and sexual harassment for various reasons.
There are many studies citing high figures of employees remaining silent in the face of bullying for the reason Styles proferred, namely that they fear that filing an official complaint to management may result in a risk of them losing their jobs.
Much also depends on the workplace culture relating to handling of bullying claims and the confidence a vulnerable employee would have in having their concerns treated seriously. It isn’t always a simple task to legislate for civility and cultural change within organisations. It is well documented that in environments where a culture of bullying is adopted or condoned it just breeds more bullying. Unfortunately, most Employers either ignore bullying behaviour or fail to investigate reports of bullying behaviour leading to an environment where there is a contagion of bullying. The worst case scenario is where a complaint, be it workplace bullying, sexual harassment or discrimination leads to retaliation or victimisation by an Employer.
Although conceptually distinct harassment and retaliation are, as a matter of practicality, manifestations of bullying. Laws prohibiting workplace bullying are meaningless without laws which protect victims of harassment from retaliation and unlawful discrimination where they elect to bring their grievances to the attention of management. Whilst such laws exist, for example within workplace, occupational health and safety and discrimination legislation, their practical enforcement can often raise problems for an employee who has already been subjected to injury.
It is notable that Clayton UTZ had already failed to ban a Facebook group described as “Clayton Utz Workplace Relations (Sydney) Whorebags“.
Styles alluded to the Workplace Relations Group within Clayton UTZ fostering a culture which condoned sexually suggestive and lewd comments, sexual innuendo, jokes and pranks.
It is apparent from the concerns aired in the Supreme Court that Styles had some serious concerns about how her grievances were greeted and dealt with by Clayton UTZ, a firm which has both co-authored and endorsed a training seminar on Sexual Harassment Prevention (2011).
A culture of bullying can often be pervasive enough to create a hostile or offensive work environment which merely leads ultimately to an adverse employment decision such as termination or demotion for the aggrieved employee.
Styles claimed derogatory comments were made about her at office functions and to other employees after the break up of her romance with Izzo. Styles told the Court that the break up of her relationship with Izzo led to harassment by other employees at the firm.
Post-It notes were appended to a montage of photos of Izzo strategically displayed near Styles’ office accompanied by the words “There is more to life than being ridiculously good looking. We hope you figure that out” and “I’m nice to look at“.
There have been many studies in Canada, New Zealand, Australia, the United States showing there is a widespread perception there is a very high prevalence of gender bias in the legal profession. Canadian Law societies have gone so far to adopt rules to the effect that sexual harassment and sexual discrimination be defined as professional misconduct based on the findings of such studies.
The Law Society of British Columbia have even introduced a workplace harassment policy and rules which apply to staff of the Law Society. The ability of self-regulating organisations like Law Societies to use their power to exclude unwanted members from within their ranks has been a legitimate concern.
Style’s experience indicates that curbing discrimination and harassment within the workplace relies on members of the legal profession preparedness to be more self-critical and to take their grievance policies relating to workplace harassment and bullying more seriously.
Ideally law firms should be setting an example for other workplaces in terms of how they choose to apply their rules, policies and procedures around workplace harassment.
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