“Some workplaces seem to accept overt sexist behaviour amongst staff and treat it as a normal part of work – but this is not acceptable.”
– Allanah Lucas, Acting Commissioner, Equal Opportunity Commission WA
Despite being against the law, sexual harassment is still common in the Australian workplace. According to the Australian Human Rights Commission, 1 in 5 women and 1 in 20 men have experienced sexual harassment while at work.
What are the facts about sexual harassment?
Sexual harassment is not more common in large organisations – it happens just as much in small to medium enterprises. Harassers can be fellow employees, managers or clients/customers.
Also, sexual harassment is not necessarily a characteristic of a specific industry – for example hospitality or blue collar work. The frequency of this behaviour is related more to a particular workplace structure or culture, including those with more casual employees or lacking a sexual harassment policy.
What kinds of behaviour constitute sexual harassment in the workplace?
Sexual harassment includes behaviours we would usually consider to be offensive like:
- suggestive comments or jokes and requests for sex;
- uninvited touching, kisses or embracing; and
- criminal acts such as indecent exposure or sexual assault.
Sexual harassment does not necessarily have to be repeated or continuous to be illegal. Some actions or remarks are so offensive they are acts of sexual harassment in themselves.
What is ‘cyber-sexual harassment’?
Most sexual harassment is non-physical. In our ‘cyber age’, sexual harassment in the workplace may include:
- sexually explicit emails or text messages;
- sexually explicit screen savers; and
- inappropriate advances on social networking sites.
Cyber sexual harassment is on the rise. In a recent survey of the Australian Human Rights Commission, 17% of people said they had received sexually explicit e-mails and text messages in a workplace context.
What can cyber-sexual harassment cost employers?
Recent cases involving cyber-sexual harassment show that this kind of behaviour can cost employers substantial resources and time.
What can be done to limit an employer’s exposure?
All employers should have a written sexual harassment policy in place which is provided to employees upon their commencement at the workplace.
The policy should not be placed on a shelf and forgotten – employees should periodically be reminded of it.
Most importantly employers should lead by example in the language they use, the example they set and in their refusal to tolerate any behaviour that may be considered harassment.
Here at Lynn & Brown Lawyers we can provide you with a sexual harassment policy, and other policies to help protect your workplace.
What should you do if you feel you are the victim of sexual harassment?
If you are the victim of sexual harassment in the workplace there are a number of steps you can take to try to remedy the situation, and what measures you take may depend on the severity of the harassment.
Possible actions will include:
- A complaint to your boss or HR manager – this may only be appropriate if that person is not the perpetrator of the harassment, and if you have confidence that you complaint will be actioned.
- A complaint to the Equal Opportunity Commission with or without the assistance of a lawyer.
- Criminal charges against the perpetrator.
Please do not hesitate to contact us for more advice as to your options if you have been the victim of sexual harassment in the workplace.
About the authors:
This article has been co-authored by Shzan Plandowski, law graduate and Jacqueline Brown, director at Lynn & Brown Lawyers. Shzan has experience in corporate and property law. Jacqui has over 20 years’ experience in legal practice and practices in family law, mediation and estate planning. Jacqui is also a Nationally Accredited Mediator and a Notary Public.