Melbourne business forced to pay ex-beautician $150k after she was sexually harassed at work

a Melbourne beauty business has been ordered to pay a former employee $150,000 after she was sexually harassed by a co-worker while working at its salon.

The Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) decision has given the victim validation that her employer should taken more action about how she was treated, while her lawyer hopes it will send a clear message that employers need to actively prevent sexual harassment at work.

Devorah Oliver was working as a beauty therapist at Melbourne male grooming business Man Oh Man on Chapel Street in Windsor when she was sexually harassed by her colleague, Federico Catalfamo, on November 30, 2018.

Devorah Oliver. (supplied)

On that day, her eyes were closed as her hair was being washed in a basin when he tried to put her fingers in her mouth.

While her hair was still being washed, he then put his face between her breasts and moved his head from side to side.

The incident led to Ms Oliver quitting her job, telling her boss via text: “This has made me feel really upset and uncomfortable…This isn’t right and things like this shouldn’t happen in the workplace.”

The incidents at the basin were caught on the business’ CCTV camera and led to police charges, in relation to which Catalfamo was penalized with a fine – but no conviction – by a magistrates court.

Ms Oliver said Catalfamo had been sexually harassing her since January 2018.

She said his actions included making suggestive comments and sex noises towards her, slapping her bottom, deliberately brushing past her, putting his leg between her legs and requesting sex with her at work.

Ms Oliver complained about Catalfamo’s actions to her manager once in either April or May 2018 and again in July or August 2018.

VCAT Presiding Member Ian Scott found the only action the business took following the complaints was to make a handbook available electronically and to discuss it at one staff meeting.

The member found there were not “reasonable precautions to prevent the sexual harassment complained of by the Applicant”.

The member suggested the business could instead have taken the reasonable precautions of investigating Ms Oliver’s sexual harassment complaint, warning and threatening to discipline Catalfamo, providing training to him regarding sexual harassment and ensuring he accessed, read and understood its Anti-Discrimination and Equal Employment Opportunity Policy in the handbook.

The business was therefore found “vicariously liable for Mr Catalfamo’s unlawful conduct”.

Ms Oliver sought compensation for the distress she suffered due to the sexual harassment, explaining she had needed psychological support since 2019.

The member agreed Ms Oliver deserved compensation, ordering this week that the employer pay her $150,000, adding the figure was “far from excessive”.

“I find that, in consequence of the sexual harassment to which the Applicant was subjected, the Applicant has suffered and continues to suffer distress, hurt and humiliation and the exacerbation of her pre-existing mental health conditions, being anxiety, depression and PTSD which I consider to be a form of compensable non-economic loss and damage,” the ruling read.

Ms Oliver told 9news.com.au she was “happy” with the outcome of the hearing.

Finally I feel like after all I’ve been through, this is some recognition that this actually happened to me, that it wasn’t all in my head and that it was serious,” she said.

“I want people to know that sexual harassment is not ok.

“This was a traumatic and humiliating experience for me, and my employer treated it like it was a light thing, like a joke.”

Ms Oliver’s lawyer, Kali Wischmann, said her firm was seeing sexual harassment prevalent across a range of industries.

“What happened to Devorah should have never happened,” she said.

“We hope that this judgment sends a clear message that all employers have a responsibility to take reasonable precautions to prevent sexual harassment.

“And where they fail to do so, they will be liable for the very severe consequences this behavior has on victim survivors.”

If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, domestic or family violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au† In an emergency, call 000.

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