sexual harassment

Addressing the issue of preventing employees from being sexually harassed in the workplace is an area of concern for many organisations. Although COVID-19 has much of our focus elsewhere, topics such as these that impact mental health continue unabated. The Australian Human Rights Commission released a report that presents the results of a national inquiry into sexual harassment in Australian workplaces. Their focus is on achieving respect for all employees with one-third of employees reporting in the past five years that they experience sexual harassment at work.

The 2018 National Survey reveals that 39% of women and 26% of men are sexually harassed at work, and Aboriginal and Torres-Strait Islander people are more likely to be victims. Workplace sexual harassment is estimated to cost the Australian economy approximately $3.8 billion due to lost productivity, high staff turnover, resources needed to respond to complaints, litigation and workers’ compensation, and reputational damage. For employees experiencing workplace sexual harassment, the costs include negative impacts on their health and wellbeing, their employment and career progression, and significant financial consequences.

For this article, we delve into the [email protected] report to look at the current context in which sexual harassment occurs, what is currently understood, what it means for your business and primary prevention strategies that we can use.

What is Sexual Harassment?

Under the Sex Discrimination Act 1984, sexual harassment is:

any unwelcome sexual advance, unwelcome request for sexual favours or other unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature in relation to the person harassed.

The Australian Human Rights Commission’s 2018 National Survey identifies several different types of sexually harassing behaviour, including:

  • Verbal forms of sexual harassment, such as sexually suggestive comments or jokes, intrusive questions about private life or physical appearance, repeated invitations to go on
    dates, or requests or pressure for sex
  • Sexually explicit pictures, posters or gifts
  • Intimidating or threatening behaviours such as inappropriate staring or leering, sexual gestures, indecent exposure, or being followed, watched or someone loitering nearby
  • Inappropriate physical contact, such as unwelcome touching, hugging, cornering or kissing, or actual or attempted rape or sexual assault
  • Improper use of technology, including sexually explicit emails, SMS or social media, indecent phone calls, repeated or inappropriate advances online, or sharing or threatening to share intimate images or film without consent.

Protecting your employees from being sexually harassed starts with identifying who the likely perpetrators are in our workplaces.

See our article, Workplace Sexual Harassment: Survey Key Findings.

Who Are the Harassers?

In most incidents of workplace sexual harassment, the harasser is male. Even so, it is difficult to identify any typical characteristics of a person who engages in sexual harassment. However, the 2018 National Survey does provide some insights to those who have been sexually harassed.

  1. The majority of complaint victims (64%) said they were sexually harassed by a single harasser
  2. Most (79%) said that one or more of their harassers was male
  3. Where the most recent incident involved a single harasser, more than half (54%) indicated that the harasser was aged 40 or older
  4. Victims said that the harasser was most commonly a co-worker employed at the same level – 27% for single harassers, and 35% for multiple harassers.

Sexual harassment is more likely to occur in the information, media and telecommunication industry and the arts and recreation industry. It also occurs in male-dominated sectors such as mining and construction. It is prevalent in industries that require a high level of contact, for example, in the retail and hospitality sectors. Finally, health care and social assistance industries, for example, the Australian Defence Force, and the medical and legal professions, have high rates of employees who are sexually harassed.

See our article, Encouraging Reporting of Psychological Injuries.

What Can We Do to Address the Problem?

The Australian Human Rights Commission recommends that initial primary prevention efforts to prevent employees from being sexually harassed should focus on:

  • Social change strategies on sexual harassment, including a national campaign to increase knowledge and change behaviours that drive sexual harassment
  • Interventions that address sexual harassment of populations at higher risk of sexual harassment, including those who experience intersectional discrimination
  • Prevention initiatives that reach young people, which focus on sexual harassment as a form of gender-based violence
  • Resources on workplace rights for young people
  • Respectful relationships education in schools that include content that recognises that sexual harassment is driven by gender inequality
  • Information and training for staff and students in tertiary education institutions that provide information on workplace rights
  • Guidelines and practical measures to ensure responsible reporting of sexual harassment by the media.

See our article, Business Must Address the Growing Mental Health Crisis.

What Does the Law Say?

The Fair Work Act governs the relationship between employers and employees in Australia. The Act does not expressly prohibit sexual harassment; however, victims can raise concerns about being sexually harassed indirectly in matters brought to the Fair Work Commission through some provisions:

  1. General protections against ‘adverse action’ based on a workplace right
  2. General protections against ‘adverse action’ based on sex
  3. The anti-bullying jurisdiction
  4. Unfair dismissal
  5. Unlawful termination on the ground of sex.

The Model WHS laws also do not expressly prohibit sexual harassment. However, they impose a positive duty on employers to prevent employees from being sexually harassed in the context of the broad duty to eliminate or manage hazards and risks to a worker’s health, which includes psychological health and therefore sexual harassment.

See our article, COVID-19 Psychological Health Legal Implications.

How Can Your Business Prevent Sexual Harassment?

To better prevent employees from being sexually harassed, the Australian Human Rights Commission recommends

  • Leadership—the development and display of strong leadership, that contributes to cultures that prevent workplace sexual harassment
  • Risk assessment and transparency—more significant focus on identifying and assessing risk, learning from experience and transparency, using a continuous improvement model both within and outside of workplaces about sexual harassment, to mitigate the risk it can pose to businesses.
  • Culture—the building of a trusting and respectful organisational culture, supported by policies and practice, that minimises the risk of sexual harassment occurring. If it does happen, ensure you deal with it in a way that minimises harm to workers.
  • Knowledge—new and better approaches to workplace education and training to demonstrate an employer’s commitment to addressing harassment. Training that supports change by developing a collective understanding of expected workplace behaviours and processes.

Tap into Safety has a dedicated training module on Sexual Harassment that uses storytelling around a character experiencing unwanted attention from a fellow employee. The training teaches what sexual harassment is and why it is not acceptable and recommends the steps you can take and where to seek help. This training is an excellent first step to introduce the topic to your employees via online delivery. The module is one of 22 on the Platform that trains and supports workplace mental health. Try a free trial to gain an understanding of our training or contact us for more information.

See our article, Do You Know Your Psychological Safety Climate Benchmark?

To Conclude

The Australian Human Rights Commission is recommending increasing provisions for workplace sexual harassment, similar to those for workplace bullying. They are currently working on a new regulatory model and the establishment of a Workplace Sexual Harassment Council. What this means for those operating a business is an increased focus around preventing your employees from being sexually harassed in your workplace. You need to develop strong leadership, undertake transparent risk assessments, to build a trusting and respectful organisational culture, and new and better approaches to education and training.

Workplace sexual harassment has a direct cost to your business due to lost productivity, high staff turnover, resources needed to respond to complaints, time managing litigation and workers’ compensation and reputational damage. Therefore, it makes good financial sense to proactively protect your employees from being sexually harassed and develop policies and procedures to encourage more respectful workplaces. The next step is to invest in training to ensure all employees understand sexual harassment and their rights and responsibilities. It’s early days, but why not make a start and be ahead of the game?

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