An employers guide to sexual harassment in the workplace

Sexual harassment at work and inappropriate workplace conduct of a sexual nature are serious matters that every employer and business needs to be aware of.

This guide to sexual harassment in the workplace covers off on some of the key things you need to be aware of as an employer, when it comes to sexual harassment at work.

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What is sexual harassment in the workplace?

Sexual harassment in the workplace refers to any unwelcome sexual advance, or other conduct of a sexual nature, which makes a person feel offended, humiliated, or intimidated.

Sexual harassment can take the form of request for sexual favours, unwelcome touching or deliberately brushing up against someone, showing or sharing sexually explicit pictures, or sexually explicit emails, or text messages, and sex intrusive questions. But instances of sexual harassment at work don’t always take obvious forms such as these. Sexually suggestive comments or jokes, and intrusive questions about a person’s private life or body are also common examples of sexual harassment. Other examples are staring or leering, unwanted invitations to go out on dates, unnecessary familiarity, rude jokes, and other similar actions.

Sexual harassment is any form of unwelcome sexual behaviour or unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature, where a reasonable person would understand that the person may feel offended, intimidated or humiliated. It can be overt, covert or subtle. It can be repeated incidents, or a one-off event. The full definition of sexual harassment can be found on the Australian Government Fair Work Commission website, or the Australian Human Rights Commission website, and more information can also be found on the Safe Work Australia website.

It’s important to remember that sexual harassment can occur not just between colleagues, but also between clients, customers, or anyone else a worker may interact with in their workplace role.

It is very important for employers to demonstrate strong policies that do not tolerate any form of workplace harassment or bullying, including sexual harassment.

The numbers: sexual harassment in the workplace statistics

According to a major survey conducted by the Australian Human Rights Commission, one in three workers report they have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace within the last 5 years. Alarmingly, the survey found that only 18% of those who experienced sexual harassment at work actually reported it. Women experienced sexual harassment in the workplace the most (41%), although, while less frequently, men do experience sexual harassment in the workplace too (26%). 77% of the harassers were men, the survey found.

These figures underline the gravity of workplace sexual harassment in Australia and indicate that addressing sexual harassment needs to be a high priority for all businesses.

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What are the impacts of workplace sexual harassment?

The impacts of workplace sexual harassment are wide-ranging and can have severe consequences for the individual being harassed, for the person or persons who sexually harassed the individual, and for the workplace.

Respect At Work, an Australian Government initiative highlights the significant emotional impacts on a victim of workplace sexual harassment, which can include feelings of fear, stress, and anxiety, which can lead to physical health problems such as gastrointestinal disorders, cardiovascular disease, and other physical injuries. It can also lead to diminished work performance, and as a result, job loss, and economic instability for the person who was/is being harassed.

For the workplace, sexual harassment can negatively impact the workplace culture. It creates a hostile environment, leading to decreased morale, increased turnover, and has the potential to damage the company’s reputation.

Sexual harassment which is not dealt with appropriately also exposes the business to potential legal action and financial liability under the Fair Work Act.

The persons who committed the sexual assault also face the risks of legal action being taken against them, and job loss. While sexual harassment in the workplace is unacceptable, without proper education, individuals may not understand the far-reaching ramifications of their actions, for themselves, the victim, and for the workplace.

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How to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace as an employer?

Preventing workplace sexual harassment begins with establishing clear workplace policies that outline acceptable behaviours and unacceptable behaviours, and explicitly state that sexual harassment will not be tolerated.

This includes providing practical guidance on what behaviours constitute sexual harassment, and offering a clear pathway for early reporting of sexual harassment incidents.

Employers should also take reasonable steps to educate employees about sexual harassment. This includes delivering training programs to help employees understand what sexual harassment is, how to prevent workplace sexual harassment, and how to respond if they witness sexual harassment.

Implementing a robust sexual harassment policy, including clear procedures for addressing sexual harassment and establishing consequences for breaching the policy, is a must.

Businesses should also promote a culture of respect and equality, where sexually explicit or offensive behaviour is not tolerated.

How to handle sexual harassment in the workplace as an employer?

Addressing sexual harassment requires a proactive and comprehensive approach. If a complaint is made, employers should act swiftly and decisively, in accordance with their sexual harassment policy and procedures, and in accordance with the Fair Work Act.

Whenever a complaint is made, or when an employer suspects sexual harassment may have occurred or may still be occurring in the workplace, an impartial investigation should be conducted, with care taken to protect the rights of all involved parties.

Hiring an experienced workplace investigator such as the experienced professional investigators at BRPM Projects will help to ensure that the investigation is conducted sufficiently and in the proper manner, with the correct processes, while protecting the rights of all employees.

Those who experience or witness sexual harassment should be encouraged to report it immediately. They should be reassured that they will not face any discriminatory reprisals for making a complaint, such as retaliation or victimisation. This is something that an employer needs to actively make clear, so that if an incident does occur, the employees already know what the company policy is and what they should do.

If a workplace investigation into the matter finds that sexual harassment did occur, the employer should take decisive action to stop the sexual harassment, act to address the issue, and provide the support required to the victim of the harassment.

This might involve disciplinary action against the offender, up to and including dismissal, and support and counselling to the worker/s who have been harassed. An external professional investigator, and legal professionals, will be able to advise more on what employers should do for each specific situation, based on the details and severity of the exact incident.

More on sexual harassment procedures in the workplace

Businesses should establish clear procedures for dealing with sexual harassment.

These procedures should be communicated to all employees and should outline how to report an incident, how the complaint will be investigated, and the possible outcomes.

Firstly, the procedures should encourage early reporting of sexual harassment incidents. The person who experienced sexual harassment, and/or the person who witnessed the sexual harassment, should feel safe and supported in making a complaint. They should be reassured that their complaint will be taken seriously, investigated thoroughly and confidentially, and dealt with in accordance with the law.

The procedures should then outline the steps of an investigation.

This should include:

  • Appointing an impartial person or team to carry out the investigation, (like one of BRPM Projects’ experienced professional investigators),
  • The investigator or impartial person interviewing the person who made the complaint and the alleged perpetrator, and any other relevant parties, and gathering any other evidence. It is crucial that these interviews be completed in an appropriate manner, and that all persons being interviewed feel comfortable and safe, and that their employee rights are upheld.
  • The investigation should be thorough and fair, aiming to establish the facts of the case.

In the event that the investigation finds that sexual harassment did occur, the procedures should outline the possible consequences. This could range from a formal warning to dismissal, depending on the severity of the incident.

In addition, businesses should provide resources and support for those who have been sexually harassed. This could include counselling services or providing information about external support services.

Finally, these procedures should be regularly reviewed and updated to ensure they are effective and in line with current laws and best practice guidelines.

It’s essential that businesses understand their vicarious liability for the actions of their employees. The government body, Safe Work Australia, provides practical guidance on fulfilling safety duties, including sexual harassment, and how to assess risks in the workplace.

Sexual harassment is a serious issue in any workplace

Sexual harassment in the workplace is a serious issue that can cause significant harm to individuals and workplaces. It’s important that businesses understand what sexual harassment is, its impacts, and how to prevent and address it.

A proactive approach to prevent workplace sexual harassment, a clear sexual harassment policy, and comprehensive procedures for dealing with incidents are all essential.

Promoting a respectful and safe workplace culture can help to reduce the incidence of sexual harassment and protect the well-being of all employees.

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