Monday, October 18, 2010

Employers brace for wave of copycat sex claims

A SOURCE of inspiration for victims of sexual harassment that forces bosses to lift their game, or a pyrrhic victory that encourages a string of spurious claims?

Kristy Fraser-Kirk's decision to accept an $850,000 settlement of her sexual harassment suit against David Jones and its former chief executive, Mark McInnes, has sent public debate about the case into overdrive.

The implications are already being felt in the legal and corporate worlds, and in workplaces across the country.

Some industrial lawyers are beginning to talk about ''the Fraser-Kirk effect'': the lodging of claims which have certain striking similarities to that of the much scrutinised 27-year-old.
''In a couple of cases it's like they're taking almost verbatim from her statement of claim and drafting it into their letters of demand,'' the managing partner of Australian Business Lawyers, Tim Capelin, said.

''We're probably getting more unrealistic claims from some of the complainants as well - people asking far more than they could ever hope to get in even the most generous settlement, let alone a court.''

Some of the letters of demand also appear to mirror the legal strategy pursued by Ms Fraser-Kirk's lawyers - claiming multiple breaches, including breach of contract, discrimination, and breaches of the Fair Work Act.

It is impossible to say whether these are cynical ''copycat'' claims or a sign there are many women who have shared Ms Fraser-Kirk's experience.

Either way, the fear of ending up in the same boat as David Jones has driven many large employers to reassess the way they deal with sexual harassment claims.

According to the head of law at Southern Cross University, Jennifer Neilsen, the case has had a positive impact as a public denunciation of sexual harassment in the workplace.
''This was a very powerful and influential person whose position was terminated because of his behaviour - that's a strong message,'' Dr Neilsen said.

''My only concern is when people start blaming the victim - turning their attention from the inappropriate behaviour of Mr McInnes to the question of how Ms Fraser-Kirk made her claim. It takes a very brave woman to step forward … but if you have the media attacking her for that decision other women will view the process with fear.''
Mr McInnes, who turned around the flagging fortunes of the retailer, can now start looking for a new job.

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