Respect@work – Is your business harassment-free?

Wednesday September 9, 2020

Around 33% of Australian workers have experienced sexual harassment in the last five years, according to the Australian Human Right’s Commission (AHRC). That’s a clear indication that sexual harassment is still a big issue in the workplace.

The report also shows that young women are most at risk. Released in March 2020, the extensive report Respect@work outlines survey results and recommendations regarding sexual harassment in Australian workplaces. The 55 recommendations include changes for both organisations and the law.

What is sexual harassment?

“Sexual harassment is unwelcome sexual conduct which makes a person feel offended, humiliated and/or intimidated where that reaction is reasonable in the circumstances. Sexual harassment in employment is unlawful under the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth).”

Determining whether an act is seen as harassment is subjective. It’s based on how it makes the recipient feel in that situation. It can happen to both women and men of all ages but is most often experienced by younger women.

Sexual harassment does not always include unwanted physical contact. It also includes suggestive comments or jokes and email or SMS communication.

While Australian law makes sexual harassment unlawful, the current system for reporting sexual harassment has come under criticism.

Positive duty for employers

The AHRC recommends “positive duty” on employers to create workplace systems and cultures that prevent harassment from occurring. The change will place more emphasis on the prevention of sexual harassment in the first place.

At present, the onus is on the employee to make a complaint before any action is taken. Fear of retaliation, further harassment and a negative impact on their career are all reasons that have stopped those experiencing sexual harassment from speaking up.

The AHRC has recommended that the Sexual Discrimination Act be amended to include positive duty, “requiring employers to take reasonable and proportionate measures to eliminate sex discrimination, sexual harassment and victimisation, as far as possible”.

Through positive duty, employers are being called upon to help create safe, gender-equal and inclusive workplaces to effect change.

Employers vicariously liable

Currently, employers in all businesses, whatever the size, could be liable for acts of sexual harassment committed by one (or multiple) employees – unless the employer takes reasonable measures to prevent harassment.

As a result, the law requires employers to implement policies, training and grievance procedures around sexual harassment prevention.

To stamp out sexual harassment in the workplace, employers need to create a culture which promotes diversity and psychological safety. In addition, they need to eliminate any barriers which may hinder the ability to speak up and call out inappropriate workplace behaviour without fearing the consequences of doing so.

Developing a culture that fosters respect at work may require cultural change within the business, as well as implementation of policy changes to facilitate this. The HR Dept is here to help you create a harassment-free and diverse workplace.

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