Managing sexual harassment in the workplace

People are becoming increasingly aware of the prevalence of sexual harassment in the workplace. High profile events like the #MeToo movement, and AMP's sexual harassment scandal earlier in the year have put a further spotlight on the issue in the workplace. 

According to a survey conducted by the Human Rights Commission, one in three workers in Australia said that they had been sexually harassed at work over the last five years, compared with one in five in 2012 and one in ten in 2003. 

Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins says that not only does unwelcome sexual conduct causes distress to employees and colleagues, it also impacts on the workplace productivity and hinders career progression, which has an economic impact on businesses and families.

In this blog, we explore what this means for your business and how you can protect employees from sexual harassment.

What is sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment is sex discrimination that is prohibited under all state and federal discrimination legislation.

Sexual harassment has taken place when:

  • the behaviour was unwelcomed 
  • the action or behaviour would make a reasonable person feel offended, humiliated or intimidated
  • the action behaviour was of a sexual nature 

What does this mean for your business?

Employers are obligated to create a safe work environment, including one that is free of discrimination. Workplace health and safety laws require employers to assess and identify risks to the health of employees and eliminate these risks as reasonably practicable.

In the case of AMP, the company did not treat allegations of sexual harassment as a risk to the health and safety of employees. Instead, they treated it as a risk to its share price (and that backfired). This may be an extreme case, but it shows there are risks in turning a blind eye on the issue.

Traditionally, WHS regulators have not put as much emphasis on sexual harassment as a health and safety issue. This mainly because the law focuses on it as a discrimination matter — and also partly due to regulators' focus on preventing physical injuries and deaths.

Now with more awareness of mental health and psychosocial work hazards, including sexual harassment, the focus is changing. Earlier this year, WorkSafe Victoria created a comprehensive guide to educate employers on their responsibilities when it comes to preventing sexual harassment under the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004.

As a proactive measure, businesses should make sure they have robust policies and procedures in place, such as anti-harassment policies and grievance procedures. Importantly, your employees need to be aware of the policies and procedures through training. Employers also need to create a culture where speaking up is valued, followed by prompt and fair resolutions to investigations.

Prevention before cure

If your business has been faced with a complaint or allegation, you must demonstrate that you’ve taken all reasonable steps to prevent sexual harassment from taking place. 

Small businesses often lack capability in-house to investigate sexual harassment matters, and sometimes, unfortunately, that lack of support has allowed for sexual harassment to continue. This puts a considerable risk to the health and safety of employees. 

Sexual harassment is a serious matter, and PositiveHR can assist your business with navigating the investigation. Please get in touch with us for a confidential discussion. 

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