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Stronger HR needed to address sexual harassment

11 February 2020 Lyall Russell
Douglas Driscoll

Employers have a responsibility to have a robust HR plan to stop sexual harassment in the workplace, Starr Partners CEO Douglas Driscoll said.

REB recently highlighted a case of sexual harassment within the real estate industry.

A Queensland agent spoke to REB under the alias of Kate Howard. She revealed how sexism and bullying affected her and knocked her confidence.

Following Ms Howard’s revelation, REINSW president Leanne Pilkington spoke up about how she was a victim of sexual harassment.

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Although the extent of sexism in real estate is unknown, this is an issue for the industry, Mr Driscoll said.

“It, for me, is the elephant in the room,” he told REB. “My fear is, it’s not an elephant, it’s a herd of elephants.”

Mr Driscoll wants to see real estate leaders, business owners and principals prepare for the stampede and take responsibility for their industry, groups, offices and teams.

However, he believes these leaders are improperly prepared and need to know more about HR and have a robust internal policy. 

“When it comes to real estate principals, they have so much on their plate as it is. HR is something that’s way down the list of priorities,” Mr Driscoll said. “Whereas my view is that it should be right at the top because the moment you employ anybody... you have an obligation, you have a responsibility.”

Staying up to date

To be prepared to deal with complex issues, continual education is needed to stay up to date, Mr Driscoll said.

He identified the Real Estate Employers’ Federation as a resource that can help create an action plan.

“Most people are members of the Real Estate Employers’ Federation purely on the premise that they will do things like employment contracts and stuff for them,” he said.

However, the federation will also help its members develop and implement a robust policy to deal with sensitive matters.

If an agency does not have a plan, it will be left on its back foot when a situation lands in front of them, Mr Driscoll said.

“That’s never a good look, nor indeed does it instill confidence in that person that’s come to you in the first place,” he said.

As a result of the lack of HR knowledge, Mr Driscoll wants to see the Real Estate Institute “raise the alarm” on this issue.

Taking leadership

As part of his own efforts to address the issue, Mr Driscoll has made it mandatory for Starr Partners’ offices to have a robust policy in place, and that means a strategy that is signed off by all staff.

“Everyone needs to be in agreement,” he said. “It’s all well to have a policy to protect you, but it needs to protect everybody.”

Mr Driscoll also wants to encourage people who witness sexual harassment in the workplace to deal with the situation.

“You need to stand up and be counted and do your best to nip that in the bud and eliminate it at all cost,” he said.

Mr Driscoll has never had to deal with a sexual harassment case, but he wants his team to have confidence that the head office will deal with the matter fairly and impartially.

To achieve that, he believes the head office’s role is to guarantee confidence, listen to the complaint and then give direction to organisations, such as Fair Work, the Human Rights Commission and the Anti-Discrimination Board, who can undertake impartial investigations.

Changing the attitude

Mr Driscoll thinks the attitude around sexism and bullying in the workplace needs to change.

He referred to comments made about Adrian Bo after he was fired from McGrath at the end of 2019, following an investigation into his behaviour at the workplace.

Mr Driscoll was shocked many people came out and made comments such as, “Give the guy a fair break. He’s a good guy.”

“What’s that got to do with anything?” Mr Driscoll said. “At the end of the day, I’m not contesting that... Unfortunately, you don’t get good guy credits.

“I’m sure [he has] given a lot of his time and energy to the real estate industry for the greater good... but you still can’t say the things he allegedly said. As soon as you utter those words, as soon as they’ve left your lips, that’s it; you’re culpable... there’s no coming back from that unfortunately.”

Although it is easy to label people “snowflakes” and blame it on political correctness, you do not know what it is like to be in the receiver’s shoes, Mr Driscoll said.

“All you’re doing is leading to heightened levels of insecurity, inadequacy, inferiority... you don’t know what mental state the person is in.”

Mr Driscoll believes a simple litmus test can be adopted to self-police your actions before you open your mouth.

“Would they say it to their wife? Would they say it to their partner? If they were a father, would they be happy with someone saying that to their daughter?” he asked.

These are uncomfortable conversations, but they need to be had, Mr Driscoll said.

“We can carry on brushing these things under the carpet in the industry. The problem with that, though, if you keep brushing enough under the carpet, it creates a trip hazard.”

Because of the nature of this topic, REB has decided not to publish any comments on this article. If you wish to share your views or stories, please email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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