Preventing workplace sexual harassment

With sexual harassment a global conversation right now, it’s a timely reminder to check your workplace policies and make sure all employees know what is and isn’t appropriate behaviour.

The story in Australia

We have strong laws about sexual harassment in Australia, yet recent statistics show it has increased in the last five years.

In a 2016 survey by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS)1, 38% of women aged between 18-24 said they’d been sexually harassed in the past year. And unfortunately, most of the formal complaints involve workplaces. A 2012 survey2 showed a quarter of women and one in six men experienced sexual harassment at work.

Defining sexual harassment

Sexual harassment is defined3 as unwelcome behaviour that’s sexual in nature and makes a person feel offended, humiliated and/or intimidated. It can be things like unwanted touching, suggestive comments, sexually explicit images or messages, intrusive personal questions and insults.

Preventing sexual harassment at work in five steps

As a business, you are legally required to make sure your employees understand what sexual harassment is, and how to deal with it. You must also have procedures for dealing with complaints and should take appropriate remedial action when sexual harassment occurs.

If you haven’t done so recently, it’s worth checking your business’ sexual harassment policies and making sure everyone knows the rules, their responsibilities, and most importantly, that they feel safe to speak up.

And here are five things you can do now to create a supportive workplace culture where your staff feel empowered and heard:

  1. Write a sexual harassment policy and get management support
    Check your HR policy and if there isn’t a sexual harassment policy, you can create your own using online resources. Then, make sure senior management endorse it and understand that all employees are expected to comply.
  2. Implement the policy across the business
    Have a full staff meeting to officially launch your policy, and explain where employees can access it. Then:
    email copies to all staff
    ask employees to sign an acknowledgement that they’ve received and understood it
    make sure it’s easily accessible eg on your intranet
    include it as part of your induction process, and
    assign responsibility to a business area to make sure it’s regularly updated and promoted.
  3. Provide regular training to all staff
    After the policy has been implemented across the business, you might like to consider training sessions for staff, so it’s not forgotten.
  4. Encourage appropriate conduct by managers
    Make sure your management team are on board with the policy and leading by example, not only in their behaviour but also in their encouragement of people to feel safe to come forward.
  5. Create a positive workplace environment
    Let your employees know where they can get help or advice if they’re sexually harassed or they’d like to make a formal complaint. Many people can feel concerned about how it might be perceived, so reassure them that every case will be taken seriously, and they’re not at risk of hurting their careers.

For more information and support

If you’d like to find out more, helpful fact sheets and toolkits for businesses are available from the Australian Human Rights Commission.


1Australian Bureau of Statistics, Personal safety 2016, cat. no. 4906.0  

2Survey by Australian Human Rights Commission – national prevalence of sexual harassment, October 2012

3Australian Human Rights Commission information for employees

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