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Guide to Workplace Sexual Harassment

What is workplace sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment is unwelcome sexual conduct which makes a person feel offended, humiliated, or intimidated where that reaction is reasonable in the circumstances.

Sexual harassment in Queensland is unlawful in any public place as well as in workplaces.

It can occur between individual employees, managers, supervisors and employees, or employees can experience harassment from clients, students, or patients.

A single incident can amount to sexual harassment and any unwelcome behaviour does not have to repeated or continuous.

What are some examples of workplace sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment can take various forms. It can include physical contact such as:

  • unwelcome touching, hugging or kissing
  • staring or leering at a person

Or it can include:

  • following or loitering near a person
  • asking intrusive questions about someone’s private life
  • making comments about a person’s physical appearance
  • making unwelcome requests for sex
  • sending sexually explicit emails, calls, text messages or other online behaviour
  • actual or attempted sexual assault, rape, indecent exposure, or stalking which are also criminal matters.

“But what about?...”

Sometimes people try and disguise sexual harassment saying “It’s only a joke”. If it’s any of the above, it’s not “a joke”, its sexual harassment.

Sometimes people say “Look at what she wearing. She must have asked for it.” This is not relevant. If it’s any of the above, its sexual harassment.

Sometimes people say “Well, it was after work, and we’d all had a few drinks.” If you’re drinking with colleagues, its work-related. And if it’s any of the above, it’s sexual harassment.

What isn’t sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment is not sexual interaction, flirtation, attraction, or friendship which is invited, mutual, consensual, or reciprocated.

However, employees should remember there are general standards of conduct expected in a work environment and a sexualised workplace culture can still be found to be sexual harassment or sex discrimination.

How widespread is workplace sexual harassment?

Anyone can be sexually harassed but women are more likely than men to experience sexual harassment. Recently, two in five women (39 per cent) and one in four men (26 per cent) reported they had experienced workplace sexual harassment at some time in the last five years.[1]

You’re also more likely to be sexually harassed if you’re a young worker (under 30), are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, LGBTIQ, have a disability, or are from a culturally or linguistically diverse background, a migrant, or hold a temporary visa, or are employed in casual or insecure work.

In fact, many of these types of workers have one thing in common – they’re often employed in insecure work such as casual, temporary or labour hire jobs, and are often afraid to speak up about unacceptable workplace behaviours because they fear they may lose their jobs. That’s why its important we have strong laws focused on preventing sexual harassment rather than waiting until it happens. We need to stop sexual harassment before it starts.

What can I do if I’ve been sexually harassed in the workplace?

Sexual harassment is not lawful in Australia under both Commonwealth and Queensland anti-discrimination laws. This means employers can be held liable for the actions of their employees or agents if the person is found to have sexually harassed an employee if they didn’t take reasonable steps to prevent the harassment. All employers also have a duty under work health and safety laws to provide and maintain a work environment without the risk of sexual harassment to workers or other persons at the workplace, business or undertaking.

New industrial laws for workplaces covered by the Fair Work Act also give the Fair Work Commission powers to issue stop sexual harassment orders if sexual harassment has occurred and there is a risk it will recur.

Some options of what to do if you are sexually harassed include:

  • Speak to your union – your union can give you advice and support as well as help you make a complaint either within your organisation or externally.
  • Speak to your Health and Safety Rep (HSR) – and if you don’t have an HSR speak to your union to organise to elect an HSR.
  • Report what happened to a supervisor, human resources area, or a person designated by your organisation. Your employer should have workplace policies or procedures in place on how to report and manage complaints about sexual harassment (including reporting confidentially or anonymously).
  • Approach the other person(s) involved to talk about your concerns after the incident has occurred, but only if you feel safe and comfortable to do so. You could have a support person with you when you do this.
  • Keep a record of what happened, when and where it happened, who was involved and anything else you think may be important.
  • Contact your WHS Regulator for further advice about prevention of sexual harassment in your workplace or lodge a complaint with the Australian or Queensland Human Rights Commission. If you’re covered by the Fair Work Act you can also apply for a stop sexual harassment order. Talk to your union about how they can assist.
  • Talk to your union about putting in place measures at your workplace aimed at preventing sexual harassment from occurring such as:
    • a proper sexual harassment prevention policy and procedure
    • education and training for managers, supervisors and employees
    • a fair and independent investigation process, and
    • support measures for people affected by sexual harassment.

What should I do if I witness workplace sexual harassment?

Preventing sexual harassment at work is your employer’s primary responsibility. But stopping it in the workplace when it does happen can also be everyone’s responsibility and we should all help to support anyone experiencing sexual harassment.

Call it out when you see it. However, never act on behalf of someone who has experienced sexual harassment without their permission, and always consult with them on how you can best help, even if that’s just to listen. Call your union to discuss options.

[1] Australian Human Rights Commission, Respect@Work: National Inquiry into Sexual Harassment in Australian Workplaces, January 2020, 19.