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Sexual Harassment in the Workplace: What are your Rights?

Everyone has the right to work free from sexual harassment.

However, in Australia the statistics relating to workplace sexual harassment complaints are on the rise. According to the Human Rights Commission, 71% of Australians have been sexually harassed with 33% of these incidents occurring in the workplace.

Despite a greater awareness of the issue, the facts about sexual harassment remain widely misunderstood.

To understand your rights and sort fact from fiction, here’s how to address sexual harassment in the workplace.

The Law

Sexual harassment has been unlawful in Australian workplaces since 1984. Since then, employers have invested in preventative workplace policies and awareness training. However, workplace sexual harassment remains an issue.

The Australian civil (Sex Discrimination Act) law defines sexual harassment as when a person makes an unwelcome sexual advance. It’s unlawful (may result in civil action), but not criminal (generally not subject to criminal prosecution by police) and includes:

  • Unwelcomed sexual advances
  • Unwelcomed request for sexual favours
  • Engaging in other unwelcomed conduct of a sexual nature that’s offensive, intimidating or humiliating

Sexual Harassment vs Sexual Assault

Sexual harassment is different from sexual assault.

Although sexual harassment is against the law, there is no obligation for it to be reported to police. However, if unwanted attention includes physical (sexual) contact without consent, this can be considered sexual assault. An assault of any sort is a criminal offence.

The effects of both sexual harassment and assault can result in a decline of mental and physical health, forced job changes or unemployment and fear, guilt, shame or distrust.

For business owners, sexual harassment can contribute to legal costs, increased employee turnover and reduced productivity in staff.

Sexual Harassment can be Hard to Recognise

Despite greater awareness, even in 2019 sexual harassment can be hard to recognise.

Both physical and non-physical behaviours can be harassment, such us unwanted sexually suggestive comments or inappropriate physical contact. In some cases, due to a position of power, employees may be afraid to report their experiences for fear it could damage their career.  

Sexual harassment also includes:

  • Staring or leering
  • Suggestive comments or jokes
  • Stalking (which can also fall under criminal law)
  • Sending sexually explicit emails or text messages
  • Unwelcomed touching, groping, hugging, cornering or kissing (which can also fall under criminal law)
  • Gender stereotype comments or jokes
  • Intrusive questions about private life or physical appearance

Certain Circumstances are Taken into Account

According to Australian law, circumstances about the person harassed need to be considered whilst handling a claim.

Age, sexual orientation, religious beliefs and ethnicity are taken into account. This prevents complaints such as it’s “just a bit of humour” or the person harassed can’t take a joke, being no legal defence.

Men and Women are at Risk

The victim and the harasser can me male, female or non-binary gender and instances aren’t restricted to the opposite sex.

In the Human Rights Commissioner’s last report, 39% of Australian women and 26% of Australia men were sexually harassed at work. This is a 13% increase since 2012.

Whilst men and women are both at risk, young people aged 18-29 are affected the most.

It can Happen in any Environment

Sexual harassment can happen in any workplace, although some environments are more susceptible than others.

Media, IT and telecommunication industries have the highest rates of harassment compared to the national average at 81%. Arts and recreation services follow at 49%, with retail (42%), mining (40%) and financial/insurance services (39%) close behind.  

Employers Could be Held Accountable

Workplace culture plays an important role with how sexual harassment is handled.

Businesses need an action plan to handle harassment complaints, or they could be held liable for not taking reasonable steps to protect employees. The policy should be a formal document which addresses how incidents of sexual harassment are to be dealt with by the organisation. Employers and coworkers must all analyse their workplace culture for gaps in gender equity and adopt best practices in sexual harassment prevention to foster a safer and respectful workplace for everyone.

Where can you get Help?

In many cases, sexual harassment incidents go unreported to employers because many people don’t think their claims are serious enough.

If you’re harassed at work, notify the business where it occurred. It’s up to your employer to inform you of their complaints procedure.

If processes don’t exist or your employer doesn’t respond appropriately, you have the option to go to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, with or without legal assistance.

Author Bio: 

This article was written by Jayde Walker (Ferguson), a local content writer in the business industry who recommends Perth City Legal for advice on sexual harassment in the workplace. You can catch her on LinkedIn.



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