Sexual Harassment in the workplace

December 12, 2018 FAQs Know Your Rights Our Resources

Unfortunately, Sex Discrimination laws in Australia have not protected workers from sexual harassment. We need to improve these laws and provide a fair, accessible and efficient complaint mechanism with greater penalties to prevent sexual harassment in workplaces.

What Is Sexual Harassment?

Sexual harassment is any physical or verbal conduct or visual display, which is:

  • of a sexual nature;
  • unwelcome and uninvited; or
  • offensive, humiliating or intimidating.

Sexual harassment is not about occasional compliments and has nothing to do with the mutual attractions of friendship which are consensual and acceptable to both parties. These are private matters.
Grounds for sexual harassment can exist whether the harassment was intended or unintended.

Sexual harassment can take many forms including:

  • Suggestive remarks and sexually explicit conversations;
  • Unnecessary familiarity such as deliberately brushing up against a person or unwelcome touching;
  • Unwelcome jokes of a sexual nature in your presence or about you;
  • Displaying or sharing sexually explicit material including via text and social media platforms;
  • Sexual propositions or repeated unwanted requests to go out on dates.

Sexual harassment may also constitute a criminal offence. Examples could include:

  • Obscene communications (telephone, calls, email, SMS/text messaging, letters etc.);
  • Touching a person where the touching is sexual in nature which is also sexual assault;
  • Stalking or indecent exposure.

Both men and women can experience sexual harassment at work and the harassment can be directed to a person of the same sex. The complainant also does not have to be directly involved; a third person may be offended by harassing behaviour among willing participants.

The harasser could be an individual or a group and may be demonstrated by a manager, supervisor, and a work colleague, from an independent contractor or supplier visiting the workplace or from customers.

The Australian Human Rights Commission Sexual Harassment Prevalence Survey found that 30% of the workers in the retail and fast food industries who experienced sexual harassment said it was by a customer. Workers have a right to a workplace free from sexual harassment including from customers. The SDA has been working with employers and industry to stop customer abuse and violence including sexual harassment.

Your Employer’s Responsibilities

Employers have a positive duty to take reasonable steps to prevent and eliminate sexual harassment from their workplace. This goes beyond simply developing a policy and hoping any sexually untoward behaviour ceases to occur.
Active strategies must be implemented to monitor, prevent and eliminate the occurrence of sexual harassment at work.

What constitutes ‘reasonable steps’ within a company could vary at each workplace but should never exclude the minimum standards for harassment prevention and mitigation. Every workplace is expected to have a current, valid and legal company policy, complaint procedures and training for staff and company management, along with enterprise agreements and contracts that reflect current legislation.

Your employer maintains the primary responsibility to investigate and resolve any sexual harassment complaints; the responsibility does not lie with the individual employee.

What can you do?

If you have been sexually harassed or you have witnessed sexual harassment in your workplace you can report the incident or make a complaint. If you don’t feel comfortable approaching the harasser, the harassment continues or is criminal in nature please contact the SDA for support.

You have protection under the law from victimisation or adverse action if you make a complaint of sexual harassment or if you are a witness of a complaint made by a co-worker.

What the SDA will do?

Sexual harassment is unacceptable behaviour and is a breach of the fundamental right of an employee to work in a physically and psychologically safe environment and to be treated fairly and with respect.

Sexual harassment can create an intimidating, hostile and offensive work environment. It is distressing and can affect a person’s mental and physical wellbeing. It is therefore an important health and safety issue.

The SDA treats all complaints seriously and sympathetically and endeavours to deal with each claim promptly and confidentially. The SDA will ensure, to the extent that we are able, that complaints will be fully investigated by the company in an impartial manner in search for a resolution that is just and fair.

The SDA will also act to ensure that steps are taken by the employer to prevent further sexual harassment occurring in their workplace.

Remember, the SDA provides support, advice and representation to members experiencing sexual harassment at work. If you experience or witness sexual harassment at work, call the SDA.