What is sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment is any unwanted or unwelcome sexualised behaviour, which makes a person feel offended, humiliated or intimidated. Interaction, flirtation or friendship which is mutual or consensual is not sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment is a type of sex discrimination. The Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth) makes sexual harassment unlawful in some circumstances. Despite being outlawed for over 25 years, sexual harassment remains a problem in Australia.

Sexual harassment disproportionately affects women with 1 in 5 experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace at some time. However, 1 in 20 men also report experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace.


Sexual Harassment in the workplace

Every year, sexual harassment in the workplace is one of the most common types of complaints received under the Sex Discrimination Act. In 2009 – 2010; 21 per cent of all complaints to the Australian Human Rights Commission were under the Sex Discrimination Act, and 88 per cent of those complaints related to sex discrimination in the workplace. The wide use of new technologies such as mobile phones, email and social networking websites creates new spaces where sexual harassment may occur.

Sexual harassment at work is against the law and is a risk to health and safety. An employer, workmate or other people in a working relationship with the victim can commit sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment can be a barrier to women participating fully in paid work. The presence or fear of sexual harassment can undermine their equal participation in organisations or business, reduce the quality of their working life and impose costs on organisations.

It is important for employers to know how to increase awareness of and prevent sexual harassment. It is also important for employees and co-workers to know how to identify sexual harassment and what avenues are available to them to make a complaint. 

Steps for Preventing Sexual Harassment in Your Workplace


Step 1.

Implement a robust anti-harassment policy that;

  1. Defines sexual harassment

Specific examples such as the ones below should be given in your anti-sexual harassment training and policies.

  • Touching and any other bodily contact such as scratching or patting a coworker’s back, grabbing a coworker around the waist or hugging a coworker before a hug is offered.
  • Sexualised or appearance-based jokes, commenting on appearance in a manner that might be unwanted.
  • Repeated requests for dates that are turned down or unwanted flirting (flirting that is not returned by the other party).
  • Transmitting or posting email or pictures of a sexual or pornographic nature, or that might cause offense or embarrassment to a coworker.
  • Displaying sexually suggestive objects or pictures in the workplace or in work vehicles.
  • Making work-related promises in return for unwanted sexual or inappropriate contact or behaviour such as, promising a promotion in return for sex.

*It is best to include examples that are relevant to your workplace.


2. Sets out clear whistleblowing and reporting procedures and encourages employees to report concerns.


Step 2.

Implement mandatory training on harassment and discriminatory treatment for all employees with refreshers carried once a year. New employee inductions should include comprehensive information about workplace conduct standards and what sort of behaviour will not be tolerated.

As many people find it difficult to discern between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour, training should ideally be carried out face to face with role playing components and realistic examples with opportunities for questions, clarification and discussion.


Step 3.

Provide visual reminders around the workplace about harassment and discrimination. The Australian Human Rights Commission provides a range of posters and downloads that can be used for this purpose. https://knowtheline.humanrights.gov.au/downloads. Change the posters regularly so that workers are getting a fresh reminder about what is expected in the workplace.


Step 4

Include staff welfare checks in annual performance reviews. The aim is to provide a safe space in which employees can feel able to discuss sexual harassment, workplace bullying or discrimination.


Step 5.

Respond to complaints of sexual harassment promptly, even if they are made informally. Sexual harassment can affect a person’s health and safety at work, so, should be treated with the same urgency as other health and safety risk. This means prompt investigation and remedial action if the complaint is found to be substantiated.