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A common form of harassment is sexual harassment, which occurs when a person is subjected to any unwanted or uninvited sexual behaviour that is offensive, intimidating or humiliating. Sexual harassment can include the following types of behaviour:

  • unwanted physical contact of a sexual nature;
  • unwanted sexual advances or requests for sexual favours;
  • unwelcome remarks or statements with sexual connotations;
  • any unwelcome gesture, action or comment of a sexual nature;
  • staring or leering at someone in a sexual manner;
  • unwanted sexual or physical contact, e.g. kissing, inappropriate touching or hugging; intrusive questions about someone’s sexual activity; and
  • repeated invitations of a sexual nature when similar invitations have previously been refused by that person.

To combat sexual harassment you should not allow inappropriate conduct, such as sexist jokes, to occur in the workplace. Do not rationalise offensive behaviour on the basis that “most people think it’s funny” or “it has always been this way”.

Business-owners are expected to be proactive in eliminating offensive behaviour, and creating a workplace where everyone is free from comments and gestures that make them feel uncomfortable. The line between appropriate and inappropriate behaviour is not always easy to discern. It is better to err on the side of caution and stop any behaviour in the workplace that might cause offence.

In some cases, sexual harassment may be a criminal offence. This includes making obscene phone calls, sending emails or letters in the mail, as well as indecent exposure, stalking, sexual assault and rape.

To help prevent harassment from occurring in your workplace, you can:

  • encourage respectful and courteous behaviour in the workplace;
  • educate everyone in the workplace about harassment, including sexual harassment;
  • put a workplace policy in place that prohibits workplace harassment;
  • implement training and education in the policy;
  • ensure the policy is enforced;
  • review the policy regularly to ensure it remains effective.

You will also need to respond promptly to any evidence of inappropriate behaviour. Treat complaints seriously, and deal with them confidentially. This should include a follow-up review to ensure the wellbeing of the parties involved and to provide support.

If one of your workers makes a complaint of harassment, make sure that you take the complaint seriously and that you, or others such as the person being complained about, do not victimise the worker making the complaint.

Victimisation occurs when a person treats a worker unfairly because the worker made a complaint or supported another person making a complaint regarding bullying, harassment or discrimination.

Victimisation is conduct that makes a worker to feel uncomfortable, isolated, unwelcome, intimidated or insecure.

Victimisation is unlawful and is taken very seriously by the courts.

If one of your workers makes a successful sexual harassment claim, your organisation may be held liable. This is known as vicarious liability.

Vicarious liability is the responsibility an employer has for the actions of its workers during work hours or in other work-related circumstances. If these actions are found to be unlawful, both the employer and the worker may be held responsible.

Sexual harassment claims have the potential to cause enormous damage to your business; not only in defending claims and compensating victims, but they can also substantially harm your reputation and disrupt your business’s operations.

As an employer or business manager, you are duty-bound to make it clear to your employees that sexual harassment in the workplace is unacceptable. Not only do you have a responsibility to ensure the safety and well-being of your employees, but you also need to protect yourself and your business from the significant damage a sexual harassment allegation can cause.

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Top stories for Sexual harassment in the workplace

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S-xual harassment policy didn’t protect employer from $30K claim

Sexual harassment in the workplace

As an employer, you will be liable for any acts of sexual harassment committed by your employees in the course of their employment, unless you can show you took reasonable steps to prevent the conduct. However, these steps are not […]

By Charles Power on November 25th, 2019

Solicitor ordered to pay employee $170,000 for ‘sinister’ sexual harassment

Sexual harassment in the workplace

A solicitor has been ordered to pay $170,000 in damages to a female employee he subjected to “relentless” sexual harassment. Owen Hughes, the principal at Beesley and Hughes in northern NSW made numerous sexual advances towards his employee over several […]

By Portner Press on June 24th, 2019

Man who sexually harassed a male colleague loses unfair dismissal claim

Sexual harassment in the workplace

What began as flirtatious texting banter between two male employees took a dark turn when one of the men started asking the other for money.

By Portner Press on April 17th, 2019

More action is needed to deal with workplace sexual harassment

Sexual harassment in the workplace

  Australia is failing to deal with workplace sexual harassment. Despite health and safety regulators having laws and powers in place to address this systemic problem, there is still very little being done about it. That’s the view of more […]

By Portner Press on March 11th, 2019

Workplace sexual harassment is becoming more prevalent in Australia

Sexual harassment in the workplace

The Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) survey demonstrates that sexual harassment remains a significant concern for both employees and employers.

By Hannah Pelka-Caven on March 4th, 2019

“Unwise” romantic advances weren’t harassment finds FWC

Sexual harassment in the workplace

A Melbourne engineer who claims she was had to resign because her supervisor wanted to “get into her pants” has lost her application for unfair dismissal remedy.

By Portner Press on November 16th, 2018

Not-for-profit manager discourages report of sexual harassment

Sexual harassment in the workplace

A manager for a not-for-profit organisation allegedly told a female worker that if she lodged a sexual harassment complaint, she would be “putting the whole project at risk”.

By Portner Press on October 17th, 2018

3 key stages in dealing with a sexual harassment complaint

Sexual harassment in the workplace

The prospect of dealing with a sexual harassment complaint may seem daunting, but with 1 in 4 Australian women known to have faced workplace sexual harassment, this is an issue that managers cannot ignore.

By Portner Press on September 10th, 2018

Timely reminder to review sexual harassment policies

Sexual harassment in the workplace

  The Fair Work Commission (FWC) has upheld the dismissal of a senior worker who made inappropriate comments and sent sexually explicit text messages to younger and more junior co-workers. InRamon Reguero-Puente v City of Rockingham (2018), the worker was […]

By Lauren Drummond on June 22nd, 2018

5 lawful ways to manage relationships in the office

Sexual harassment in the workplace

  We all know of employees who have formed friendships or even romantic relationships with other employees in the workplace. While there is nothing unlawful about this behaviour, if a relationship breaks down and you don’t manage it correctly, it […]

By Brihony Tulloch on March 12th, 2018