Former employee sues TRUenergy over sexual harassment claim

The sexual harassment culture of TRUenergy was so bad that the head of human resources followed its managing director around the staff Christmas party to ensure he did not do anything untoward, a court has heard.

Former director of corporate and government affairs, Kate Shea, is suing the company – now called Energy Australia – in the Federal Court for unlawfully terminating her after she reported allegations that she had been sexually harrassed by then chief financial officer Kevin Holmes, and complained of the sexual harrassment culture at work.

Ms Shea reported that Mr Holmes sexually harassed her at a work function Hong Kong in 2010 to the human resources department. TRUenergy launched an investigation after she informed managing director Richard McIndoe in April 2011.

But Ms Shea’s employment was terminated after the company claimed her position had become redundant in its restructure. She claims she was unlawfully terminated due to her complaints.

Only two of the company’s 1500 employees – Ms Shea and her executive assistant – were made redundant in the restructure, and the company later hired someone else to perform the job she previously had.

Charles Gunst, QC, for Ms Shea, said in his opening address on Monday that staff – both men and women – were sexually intimidated in the workplace, with the director of human resources, David Purvis, shadowing managing director Richard McIndoe at a Christmas party.

A former female director at the party also claimed that: “(Mr Holmes) leered at me …it was so obvious and truly made my skin crawl.”

On another occasion, Mr Holmes had also pulled a male staff member’s pants down at work in front of others “leaving him stark naked from the waist down in front of others” in what was later described as a “prank gone wrong”.

Mr Gunst said that his client and Mr McIndoe had a good personal and professional relationship even after she had made her initial complaint.  But Mr McIndoe considered her later allegations that there was a culture of sexual harassment at the company that he and others condoned “blackmail against him and scandalous”.

“Within a matter of weeks…he tried to sack her. Nothing else happened, she hadn’t mucked up at work,”  Mr Gunst said. “Things happened very quickly once he was implicated.”

Ms Shea refused his demands to retract the allegations against Mr McIndoe in September. A month later, he gave her a letter terminating her employment. When she resiled, saying that this was illegal, he gave her a letter of resignation to sign.

Justin Bourke, SC, for Energy Australia, denied there was a culture of sexual harassment at the company, citing the company’s hiring of lawyers for both Ms Shea and Mr Holmes and a discrimination law expert to conduct an independent investigation after her initial complaint.

Mr Bourke also rejected Ms Shea’s allegations regarding the Christmas party, saying that a week earlier Mr McIndoe had been in hospital receiving surgery for neck cancer.

He said her argument that she was fired because she made the complaints was a “conspiracy theory”, as there were “real and pressing business reasons” for her termination within the company’s restructure. She viewed Mr Holmes as a rival in her investor relations role because he had strong finance skills, which she did not.

Ms Shea “loved” working at the company so much that she was hoping to be reinstated.

“The minute she hears Kevin Holmes is going to be in the investor relations space, after that meeting she starts describing (the Hong Kong incident) as sexual harrassment and sexual assault when she’d previously referred to those events as ‘he made a pass at me’.”

Between June and October 2011, he said that Ms Shea went on leave and threatened to speak to the media unless the company met a series of demands, including paying her $2.5 million.

The case continues.

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