Sexual harassment in real estate

19 Mar 2021
Estate Agents Co-operative
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Contributed by an agent in NSW

When I was 18 or 19, I secured my first job in real estate outside my family business.

I had moved from the country to the city, was enrolled in uni, and worked part-time for a well-known franchise.

In addition to the work I did during the day, I stayed back at night, with another female employee, to make cold calls to try to book in free appraisals.

We’ve all done cold calls, we all know it’s not the most pleasant work! Fortunately, for me, the worst response I ever had was when the property owner told me his dinner was boiling over and he’d be right back.

Young and naïve, I sat there for 20 minutes before I realised, in reality, he was never coming back.

No, it wasn’t the cold calls that were a challenge in my job, it was my boss.

A 50-or-so year old man, he would make a point of regularly coming up behind my seat, and leaning over me to unnecessarily point out names or numbers in the phone book.

He’d lean into my back, heavy, breathing into my hair and neck, making a point of creating as much contact between us as he could.

Occasionally, he’d give me a shoulder rub to congratulate me on a new booking.

At 18 years old, I had no idea what to do with this unwanted behavior. It was uncomfortable, it was disturbing, but as far as I could tell, ‘it was harmless’.

I tried to make it clear through body language, avoiding him, moving, joking, that it was unwanted. But he just didn’t get the message!

At the time, the only people who knew about this situation were my boss, the other young woman I worked with, who had a very similar experience, and myself.

Years later, I look back on that job and I still cringe.

I cringe because I know it was inappropriate and I did nothing about it. I cringe because I feel I am a strong woman, and yet I stayed quiet.

I cringe because I watched it happen to someone else and I didn’t stand up for her.

This week, we saw thousands of women, and the men who support us, take to the streets and march across Australia in solidarity with those who experience workplace harassment or abuse.

Most notably, we heard from Brittany Higgins, who was allegedly sexually assaulted by a former colleague she worked with at Parliament House.

Unfortunately, these types of incidents have not just happened to one woman in one workplace, and as many of us know, unwanted behavior, does occur in real estate.

So, what do we do about it?

What is sexual harassment?

When it comes to sexual harassment, for many women and men, it’s difficult to know what’s included under the banner and what’s not.

According to humanrights.gov.au, ‘Sexual harassment is unwelcome sexual conduct which makes a person feel offended, humiliated and/or intimidated where that reaction is reasonable in the circumstances.”

It might include things like facial expressions or remarks that fit the bill; emails or SMS, jokes or sexual stories; sharing sexual material; staring at a person in an inappropriate way; making inappropriate comments about a person’s body or attire; inappropriate or suggestive touching; sexually intrusive questions, or someone who just won’t take no for an answer when rejected for a date or meet up.

As colleagues, friends, human beings, it’s important we check ourselves and each other, and when this type of behaviour is occurring, we call it out.

Why is it difficult to report harassment?

In my case, there were many reasons I didn’t confront my boss.

First of all, in honesty, he was bigger and more physically powerful than me, and the idea scared me.

Secondary, I was a little embarrassed. I wondered if I said anything, if he would dismiss it, think me unjustifiably egotistical and make fun of me or draw on the age-old, ‘You must think you’re pretty special, well you’re not!’

Ultimately, I was also worried about my job.

This man was in a position of power over me, I felt I didn’t want to upset him. I told myself that perhaps he didn’t know he was doing it, or he didn’t mean anything by it, or maybe there was something I was doing to make him think it was ok.

I knew that he had cultivated (very superficially) a public persona as a kind and respectful man. I understood that no matter how I approached it, how I worded it – ‘sorry, would you mind not getting so close, it’s a bit uncomfortable’ – all he would hear is me accusing him of being a predator.

I just didn’t need that.

From talking to other women who have experienced far worse than I did, it is clear, these feelings, these internal conversations, excuses for the behaviour, victim-blaming and shaming, just escalates as the scale of the incident does. The worse the behaviour, the more difficult it seems to report.

How to report sexual harassment

In large, corporate organisations, there is often a clear path for reporting harassment, and a process that will be followed to investigate the complaint.

Unfortunately – and Miss Higgins’ case is a clear example – this doesn’t always mean it’s easy to get the courage to report the issue, that it will be taken seriously, or you will be treated with the respect and support you deserve.

In real estate, we often work in small offices, and HR is not a department that exists. This makes the reporting path somewhat unclear.

If you are experiencing harassment, and you feel you can’t address it directly, start by talking to a trusted colleague who will provide you support.

If the behaviour is coming from a client or someone in the company that is not the Licensee or office manager, book a meeting with the Licensee or office manager, take your colleague with you for support, and let the senior staff member know what’s happening.

While you should always receive support, it can help to have documented the time, date and nature of inappropriate behaviour, so you can also provide this to your senior staff member to aid their investigation.

You should also put your complaint in writing to the person you are meeting with.

If there is no one you can internally report the behaviour to, all is not lost. You can initially reach out to groups like 1800 RESPECT for confidential information, guidance and counselling.

To further escalate the issue, you can also contact The Law Society (NSW: (02) 9926 0333), or for free assistance, Legal Aid, Community Legal Centres, Law Access, or Justice Connect.

How to respond to a report

Often, in real estate, the person receiving the sexual harassment complaint will not be a HR specialist, so it can be difficult knowing what to do next.

As an employer, you have a duty of care (and potentially a legal requirement) to act on such a complaint.

The first thing you need to do is take it seriously; don’t dismiss the report or shame the person who is reporting it. Take a gentle and open approach to explaining the steps from here so they know what will happen, and begin your process immediately, without delay.

In starting your investigation, have a more thorough conversation (or several) with the person reporting the incident and take notes to record the events.

You will need to put measures in place to keep them safe from retaliation from the accused or any other staff. Ask them if any other staff were involved or witnessed any of the incidents.

If possible, without compromising the safety or comfort of the person reporting the incident, talk with any witnesses to record the events from their view.

Humanrights.gov.au tells us whether or not the behaviour is ‘unwelcome’, is subjective and about how it was received, not how it was intended. Whether it was offensive, humiliating or intimidating is objective and is about if a reasonable person would anticipate the behaviour would have this affect.

Using the information you have gathered, you can make a decision about what comes next. If you don’t feel comfortable making a call yet, you can reach out to a number of organisations like 1800 RESPECT or legal groups to get advice.

If you elect to continue employing the person accused, follow up regularly with both parties to ensure there is no further sexual harassment or resulting bullying incidents.

The bottom line:

The Sex Discrimination Act makes employers liable for sexual harassment unless you have taken all reasonable steps to prevent it occurring.

All organisations should have a sexual harassment policy that clearly states behaviour of this nature will not be tolerated. The policy should be provided to all new employees, implemented and monitored.

Your policy is just one step you can take to ensure you are doing all you can to prevent sexual harassment in your workplace.

What I have learned from my experience, is often, you don’t feel great about not saying something at the time, and you continue to regret it into the future, whether you were the victim or you witnessed it.

We all need to be advocates for ourselves and for each other, and work to ensure everyone can have a safe and enjoyable experience at work.

If you need further support or advice:

Picture by Eutah Mizushimi

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