Identifying people who are at risk of sexual harassment

Anyone can experience sexual harassment. While women are sexually harassed more often than men, other groups are also highly vulnerable. Factors which may increase the likelihood of a worker experiencing sexual harassment include:

  • workers under 30 years of age
  • workers who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer or asexual (LGBTIQA+)
  • Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander workers
  • workers with a disability
  • workers from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds
  • migrant workers or workers holding temporary visas
  • people in insecure working arrangements e.g. casual, labour hire or part-time work.

The risk of experiencing harm from sexual harassment rises when a person faces multiple forms of discrimination. Attributes such as gender, sexuality, migration status, race, disability and literacy can combine (intersect) and increase a person's vulnerability. These factors can also make workers less likely to report sexual harassment.

Accepting that sexual harassment does occur

Just because you may not have received any formal complaints of sexual harassment, does not mean that it does not occur. The Australian Human Rights Commission 2018 sexual harassment survey showed that only 17% of workers who experienced sexual harassment reported the conduct.

A lack of reporting may simply mean that people are not reporting the harassment because:

  • they do not understand or know their workplace rights, what behaviour should be reported or how to report it, particularly if workers are culturally or linguistically diverse
  • it is seen as just ‘part of the job’ or the work culture and nothing can be done about it
  • they believe only the most serious incidents should be reported
  • do not feel safe and supported to do so
  • they think reports will be ignored or not handled respectfully and confidentially
  • feel that they will be victimised if it was known they made a complaint
  • feel they will lose their job if they report the behaviour
  • the perpetrator may have organisational power over them (such as a manager or supervisor) or is in a position of influence, such as a client.

Identifying hazards and assessing risks

Sexual harassment is a common and known cause of physical and psychological harm. You must treat the risk of sexual harassment just as you would other workplace risks by using a risk management approach to eliminate or minimise risks so far as is reasonably practicable.

Identify how, where and when sexual harassment might happen in your workplace. Also consider your workforce and whether they might fall into a high risk category.

To identify hazards, it may be useful to:

  • walk-through and assess the physical work environment e.g. are there areas with limited natural surveillance like meeting rooms or store rooms, areas that restrict movement (such as where workers would need to touch each other to move past) or prevent workers maintaining their personal space, and posters or pictures on display that may be offensive
  • assess the online working environment, if relevant
  • consider work systems and practices to identify risks of exposure e.g. working after hours with minimal supervision, in restrictive spaces like cars or in isolated locations
  • observe the culture of the workplace to see whether sexual harassment is accepted as normal behaviour e.g. sexual or gendered jokes and teasing are part of daily working life
  • observe how leaders, managers, supervisors, workers and others interact e.g. are there poor relationships or do workers avoid being around certain people
  • if appropriate, carry out confidential anonymous worker surveys about the workplace culture, if workers have experienced sexual harassment, or behaviours that have caused discomfort and have the potential to escalate
  • identify trends that may highlight areas of concern or affected workers e.g. is a worker performing their tasks differently, taking more sick leave, isolating themselves, not attending work functions, or if a work group has had a number of resignations
  • conduct worker exit interviews and surveys when a workers leaves the company, and take proactive steps on the information
  • consult with HSRs and worker representatives, if you have them, about whether concerns have been raised by workers
  • consult workers and take the views of workers most affected into account when making decisions
  • review grievance data such as formal and informal complaints about concerning behaviours and workers’ compensation claims
  • identify the worker demographics of your workplace to identify power disparities in working relationships.

Controlling the risks

The risk of sexual harassment at your workplace can be managed by taking a proactive approach. Implement safe work systems and procedures that:

  • provides a safe physical and online work environment
  • promote respectful and inclusive workplace culture from all levels of worker
  • put measures in place to prevent third-party sexual harassment from customers, clients and members of the public
  • removes the acceptability of lower level forms of harassment such as sexual jokes, gendered teasing or giving inappropriate nicknames to co-workers
  • encourages workers to report sexual harassment and providing safe, confidential and clear avenues to do so, including anonymous reporting
  • encourages workers to keep records and screen shots if inappropriate behaviour occurs online or through phone communication
  • responds to reports of sexual harassment in a way that focuses on supporting the worker and is sensitive to any trauma to minimise further risk to health and safety
  • applies appropriate consequences for sexual harassment misconduct, such disciplinary action consistent with other workplace misconduct
  • provides regular supervision and communication with workers, particularly when workers are at remote locations or working from home
  • avoids sexualised uniforms and ensure clothing is practical for the work undertaken
  • uses information, instruction, training and supervision to support the overall prevention strategy
  • monitoring and reviewing the effectiveness of control measures.

Deciding what control measures are reasonably practicable to prevent sexual harassment will be different for each workplace. And remember to consider whether the control measures you introduce create any new hazards or risks to health and safety.

Implementing workplace policies

A workplace policy may help set out how your business will prevent and respond to sexual harassment and communicate to workers, managers, customers, clients and visitors that it will not be tolerated. This only needs to be a simple written policy which is communicated to all workers.

A policy may set out:

  • unacceptable behaviour
  • how to report sexual harassment
  • how reports will be dealt with and
  • the support services available.

Providing information and training

Everyone in your small business needs to understand the workplace policies and behaviours expected of them and that sexual harassment is unlawful.

Training for workers and managers should include information on:

  • what sexual harassment is
  • what to do if they are sexually harassed
  • if they witness someone else being harassed
  • how to report it
  • what behaviour is not acceptable, including behaviour towards a person who has made a complaint.

You could display the workplace policy on notice boards, hand out brochures, put up posters or have informal discussions with workers to ensure they understand the policies.

Reporting and responding to sexual harassment

When establishing reporting mechanisms:

  • provide your workers with a range of ways to report sexual harassment, such as informally, formally, anonymously or confidentially
  • communicate to your workers how they can report sexual harassment
  • outline the support, protection and advice available to them if they do make a report
  • nominate a contact officer that high risk workers would find approachable, non-threatening and would maintain confidentiality
    • provide this person with training and resources.

Sexual harassment is best managed by responding as soon as possible after suspecting or becoming aware there is a problem.

When dealing with reports of sexual harassment, you should:

  • Ensure managers are trained in policies and how to respond to reports
  • act promptly and ensure the safety of the workers involved
  • consult with the complainant to determine whether they wish to pursue their complaint formally, informally or in some other way, and what support they require
  • clearly communicate the process to everyone involved (including both sides of the complaint and witnesses if appropriate)
  • protect all people involved from victimisation e.g. being bullied or intimidated
  • tell all people involved what support and representation is available
  • maintain confidentiality
  • treat everyone involved fairly
  • ensure all actions and decisions are documented and information is stored securely.

Related information

Guide to preventing workplace sexual harassment – Safe Work Australia

Preventing workplace sexual harassment – advice for small business – Safe Work Australia

Workplace sexual harassment – advice for workers – Safe Work Australia

Ending workplace sexual harassment – Australian Human Rights Commission