The birds and the bees – how to tackle tough conversations about workplace sexism

- November 10, 2020 5 MIN READ

When it comes to striking fear into parents’ hearts, few things do it more effectively than the thought of having the ‘birds and the bees’ conversation. Similarly, managers and directors of businesses often experience trepidation about broaching workplace sexism and sexual harassment. However, it’s crucial you find the courage to step up and create a safe, trust-based culture. Being proactive about what’s happening in your workplace helps avoid damage to your employees and your business, writes Maureen Kyne, sexual harassment, discrimination and workplace bullying expert.

Intervene early to avoid damaging consequences

Parents can save a lot of confusion, fear and misunderstanding by visiting the birds and the bees talk early on. Likewise, managers can reduce the incredible potential damage of casual sexism in the workplace through early intervention.

To explain, imagine driving your shiny new car down a road pocked with small potholes. You avoid them by swerving over the road. If council does nothing, those potholes get bigger and now, you can’t swerve to avoid them. Instead, your lovely car gets scraped and scratched. It may even suffer irreparable damage.

If sexism or sexual harassment exist in your workplace, there may be little evidence of damage at first. When it goes unchecked, your staff will suffer serious consequences, such as loss of career momentum and mental health issues.

Moreover, there will be significant costs to your business, both in fiscal and reputational terms.

The cost of sexism and sexual harassment in the workplace

Returning to our car analogy, repairing damage is costly and inconvenient. When it comes to damage from sexism in the workplace, the costs can be huge. They include:

High staff turnover

If your staff are suffering, they’re likely to talk with their feet and you’ll incur the cost of finding and training a replacement. Research conducted by PwC revealed that almost one in four Australians leave their jobs within the first 12 months, at an estimated cost of $3.8 billion in lost productivity and $385 million in avoidable recruitment costs.

Replacing someone costs up to four times their annual salary. So, an employee earning $100,000pa could cost you $400,000 to replace. Moreover, you could have six months’ downtime while you’re recruiting and training a new candidate.

Reputational damage

Perhaps less obvious is the potential for irreversible reputational damage. Not too long ago, I learned a local company had paid $1.2 million to a woman in a ‘secret deal’ over workplace sexual harassment.

Even secret deals can have significant fallout. Firstly, they rarely stay entirely secret. Are you prepared to risk having to make one?

In another ‘secret’ I heard about 18 months or so ago, the manager involved left the business and hasn’t worked since.

Punitive damages

Moreover, you could become liable for punitive damages. Take the case of Kristy Fraser-Kirk, who sued former David Jones chief executive Mark McInnes and the retail giant for about $37 million.

The case captured media headlines – and national attention – for many weeks. She ultimately accepted a settlement of $850,000 and her case set the bar for future sexual harassment claims. Other reports show women have been paid over $1 million and these do not include punitive damages.

This pales in comparison to the situation in the United States, where claims worth up to $20 million have been awarded where punitive damages are included. How long until Australia catches up?

Fair Work claims

Sexual harassment doesn’t yet fall under Fair Work legislation. However, Kate Jenkins, Australia’s Sex Discrimination Commissioner, has called for reforms to empower the Fair Work Commission to deal with both sexual harassment and sex discrimination claims. Fair Work claims may only be a matter of time.


Depending on your board structure, failure to respond to sexual harassment or sexism could call your position into question, or even lead to loss of your job.

The benefits of talking turkey about the birds and the bees

There’s an upside to having courageous conversations about sexism and sexual harassment.

Discretionary effort

When things aren’t going well, discretionary effort plummets. Many businesses are languishing in the mid 50% range. Conversely, engaged, valued employees are more likely to work hard. I know a Queensland law firm who achieved discretionary effort figures of over 80% thanks to their commitment to creating an excellent workplace culture exceeding the national benchmark of 75%.

Powerful positioning

Having the courage to talk turkey about sexual harassment and discrimination can position you as an employer of choice, thereby helping you attract and retain the best talent (and reducing the costs discussed above).

Company growth

Companies who value their employees are positioned optimally for growth and success.

What can you do?

Did you avoid the birds and the bees talk with your kids? Perhaps you abdicated responsibility and left it to your partner?

Avoidance is one of five conflict resolution modes defined by the Thomas-Kilmann Instrument (TKI). They explain that   “Avoiding is unassertive and uncooperative—the person neither pursues his own concerns nor those of the other individual.”

You might get away with avoidance at home, but you can’t palm off your workplace responsibilities.   Managers must take courage and find ways to have the hard conversations.

Here’s some suggestions for getting started

Take stock of your workplace

Take an honest look at what’s going on in your organisation. For example, how many complaints are being lodged? What is the root cause of those complaints? Could sexual harassment or sexism be disguised in complaints of workplace bullying?

Review your training

This means more than reviewing your sexual harassment policies – especially if they’re simply a ‘tick and flick’ process repeated every second year. Instead, revisit your education around sexual harassment, minus your rose-coloured glasses.

Consider what message is being communicated. The training you’ve been doing for the last 10 years might need a complete overhaul if you’re committed to changing workplace culture for the better.

Engage with employees

Be prepared to have open, frank conversations with your employees about what’s become acceptable and normalised within your organisation. You need to create a platform, such as an ‘open-door’ policy, where people feel safe to express their concerns in an environment of trust.

This represents the opposite of the ‘avoidance’ style. TKI describes the collaborative approach as “an attempt to work with others to find some solution that fully satisfies their concerns. It means digging into an issue to pinpoint the underlying needs and wants of the two individuals.”

You might even choose to celebrate people’s concerns and complaints as an opportunity for change.

Build trusted networks

Look for people to become the champions within your team. Even if staff may not come to you, you can build a network of people they feel safe talking to. Who do you trust to form that safety net within your organisation?

Be a good role model

Unless we model the behaviours we want others to embrace, nothing else works. Consider whether your own behaviours need to be modified to create the culture you really want for your business.

Don’t weasel out of tough conversations

This strategy is fundamental. You may have weaselled your way out of having the birds and the bees talk at home, but avoiding it at work can have devastating consequences for you, your employees and your business.

I understand the difficulties around instigating these conversations. Perhaps you fear broaching this sensitive subject the wrong way will cause more harm. Maybe you lack the confidence or skills to tackle the issue. I know many CEOs who love their staff but struggle to have these conversations.

Preventing inappropriate workplace behaviours is essential as is addressing issues will help to create a safe, trust-based culture that boosts employee morale and your bottom line?

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