Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

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Home > Blog > Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

The ‘Me Too’ movement gained momentum in the entertainment world in 2017 off the back of allegations of sexual misconduct by Harvey Weinstein. It was then that the discussion around sexual harassment in the workplace was given fortitude thanks to a group of famous faces sharing their own stories of victimisation. With the recent investigation into the allegations of sexual harassment by Judge Dyson Heydon against several of his former female associates, the topic of sexual harassment in the workplace has once again come to the fore.

Unfortunately, the occurrence of sexual harassment in Australian workplaces is high, with 1 in 5 women and 1 in 20 men reporting instances of unwanted behaviour of a sexual nature at work.

So, whether you are an employee or an employer it is important that you have an understanding of exactly what sexual harassment is and what you should do if you or one of your staff members has been harassed in the workplace.

What is sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment is unwanted or unwelcome sexual behaviour and encompasses a range of different actions.

Sexual harassment can include a person or group:

  • making comments, jokes or gestures that are of a sexual nature;
  • forwarding or showing you sexually offensive or pornographic material;
  • asking for or demanding sexual favours (including via email or text);
  • displaying sexual material (such as on a computer screensaver);
  • touching, groping or grabbing your body;
  • leering at your breasts, genitals or other body parts; and
  • asking inappropriate questions about your sex life.

Consensual flirting or sexual activity is not considered to be sexual harassment.

In Australia, it is illegal for a person to sexually harass anyone else while they are at work, under the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth) and the Queensland Anti-Discrimination Act 1991.

Sexual assault and indecent exposure are also forms of sexual harassment, although they are considered to be extreme forms and are also classified as crimes.

How being sexually harassed can affect physical and mental health

Being a victim of sexual harassment can cause a person to feel anxious, afraid, stressed and angry, similarly to how one might feel if they were being bullied at school or work.

Ongoing sexual harassment can cause depression and even post-traumatic stress disorder in severe cases. Victims of sexual harassment may also lose the motivation to go to work, find they are lacking in confidence or experience a decrease in productivity. Physical symptoms such as shaking, muscle tension, headaches and lack of sleep may also occur.

As an employer what can you do to prevent workplace sexual harassment?

Employers can take precautions against staff members sexually harassing others in the workplace by:

  • enforcing a policy on sexual harassment and ensuring it is in a prominent place;
  • enforcing a formal process for dealing with complaints
  • training employees on what sexual harassment is, what is and isn’t appropriate in the workplace and how to report unwanted behaviour; and
  • taking swift action against any perpetrators of sexual harassment.

What can you do if you are being sexually harassed at work?

Sexual harassment should not be tolerated in the workplace and it is your fundamental right to work in an environment that is free of harassment of any kind.

If you are experiencing any type of unpleasant behaviour in the workplace – sexual or otherwise – it is important to keep a record of when and where the incident occurred as well as any other details, including the names of any witnesses. It is also prudent to keep a record of any evidence such as emails, text messages, photos and videos or screenshots of comments made on social media.

If it feels safe to do so, the first step to attempting to put a stop to sexual harassment is to raise the issue with the perpetrator. Sometimes it can be uncomfortable having to ask them to stop their behaviour, particularly if they are in a more senior position. If it is too difficult for you to ask the perpetrator to change or stop their behaviour, you could raise your concerns with a trusted colleague, such as your manager or supervisor or a representative from HR who may be able to speak to the perpetrator for you.

If the harassment continues you should alert your HR department and make a formal complaint so that a proper investigation can be undertaken. You should continue to keep a record of any unpleasant behaviour. 

If you are dissatisfied with the outcome of your internal complaint you can submit a written complaint to the Queensland Anti-Discrimination Commissioner or the Human Rights Commission. The Commission can facilitate a conciliation to resolve the matter, if appropriate.

Contact our human resources consultants if you are an employer who requires assistance preparing a sexual harassment policy or complaints process or handling a grievance from a staff member, or if you are an employee who is a victim of sexual harassment in the workplace and you need advice or assistance on how to handle the matter.