Employment Law Series: Do Your Work Policies Address Sexual Harassment?

Did you know that 71% of Australians have been sexually harassed at some point in their lifetime, of which 33% occurred at work in the last five years?

The results of the 2018 National Survey highlighted this high rate of sexual harassment in Australian workplaces. Other notable outcomes were:

  • Perpetrators were most often a co-worker at the same level as the victim. Where there was a single perpetrator, more than one in four cases (27%) involved a co-worker at the same level as the victim. Where there were multiple perpetrators, more than one in three cases (35%) involved at least one co-worker at the same level as the victim
  • For both women and men, the most common type of workplace sexual harassment experienced was offensive, sexually suggestive comments or jokes
  • More than half of workplace sexual harassment (52%) occurred at the victim’s workstation or where they work. One-quarter of incidents (26%) happened in a social area for employees
  • A substantial proportion (40%) of workplace sexual harassment incidents were witnessed by at least one other person, and in the majority of cases (69%), the witness did not try to intervene
  • Fewer than one in five people (17%) made a formal report or complaint in relation to workplace sexual harassment
  • The most common outcome of reports or complaints was a formal warning to the perpetrator (30%)
  • Almost half (45%) of people who made a formal report said that no changes occurred at their organisation as a result of the complaint
  • The most common reasons for not reporting workplace sexual harassment were that people would think it was an over-reaction (49%) and it was easier to keep quiet (45%)
  • While sexual harassment is an issue across all industries, rates are particularly high in the information, media and telecommunications industry

Kate Jenkins, Sex Discrimination Commissioner, also commented “survey results also suggest that more work is needed to encourage and support the action of bystanders in the workplace—people who witness or hear about the sexual harassment of another person at their work. As bystanders can make a significant contribution to preventing workplace sexual harassment, these results highlight the need to target our efforts at supporting bystanders to take a stand against sexual harassment.

Take Away Message For Employers

So how can you best facilitate the encouragement and support, for both victim and bystanders in the workplace, to speak up and have a voice? This largely rests in making this part of the fabric of your workplace. Organisations culture is a weave of values, objectives, processes, communications, perspective and how these all fit together in a system that reinforces them. Therefore, if there is no place for sexual harassment in your workplace, your policies should reflect this and strong messages of action and support needs to come from the top consistent with these policies.

Define what sexual harassment is, examples of what’s in, what’s out and make sure this is known to all your staff. Provide clear pathways and information readily available about these pathways on how victims and bystanders can report and receive assistance when needed.  To ensure that such a policy becomes the fabric of your organisation, do not treat it like a static feature that once completed it is not revisited until the next National Survey. Take time and devote resources to reviewing your policies and educating staff every twelve months to maintain currency and relevance. By doing so you will be doing the best by your staff and your organisation.


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