Mitigating sexual harassment in the workplace

29 July 2022

Changes to obligations mean businesses must act now to proactively manage sexual harassment in the workplace.


The existing sexual harassment regulatory framework is complex. Many pieces of state and Commonwealth legislation dictate employers’ obligations and responsibilities around preventing and responding to sexual harassment.

In Victoria, the Equal Opportunity Act 2010 (Vic) confirms employers have a positive duty to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace. The Respect@Work report recommends this proactive approach is mirrored at a Commonwealth level.

The existing obligation to prevent and mitigate risk is strengthened by the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 (Vic), the proposed Occupational Health and Safety Amendment (Psychological Health) Regulations 2021 (Vic), and the Victorian Government’s announcement and commitment to tackle workplace sexual harassment.

While the positive duty has existed in Victoria for some time, we still have a reactionary framework, meaning employees can only act when a breach or incident has occurred via a complaint or claim.

The proposed changes will enable an employee, WorkSafe inspector, and potentially a union to potentially commence action before an incident has occurred if a business is not proactively managing sexual harassment.

What does this mean for business?

Sexual harassment is a serious workplace issue. If you are a business owner or human resources or health and safety professional, now is the time to shift the focus and take preventative action.

Businesses must move away from a reactive, complaint-management approach and focus on the workplace, work systems, controls and prevention.

Here are the Victorian Chamber’s top five tips to help you proactively manage sexual harassment.

#1: Assess

Build a risk assessment. Risks will fall into different categories, including:

  • Physical risks – if you have evening shift workers, is there sufficient lighting? Are there any issues with the workplace layout or access from the carpark?
  • Cultural – do employees feel uncomfortable raising concerns, or does the workplace culture accept demeaning or otherwise inappropriate jokes?
  • Systemic – Do you have enough supervisors on shift? Are they trained? Are they, and all staff, equipped to call out inappropriate behaviour?

A simple starting point may be a staff survey to understand how the workforce feels and highlight risks and potential measures. A survey can assess if staff are comfortable to call out inappropriate behaviour and have confidence complaints will be managed appropriately.

A risk assessment will require careful thought and planning. Don’t be afraid to partner with an expert to ensure your risk assessment is robust and relevant to your workplace and industry.

#2: Identify

An accurate risk assessment means you need to identify and call out potential risks. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you are simply highlighting error and exposing the business. You are doing the opposite.

If you don’t call it out, you can’t control, improve or measure it. Ask yourself: can I demonstrate I have assessed and identified the risk? Do I have a plan to mitigate the risk?

#3: Control

For each identified risk, what steps can the business take to reduce the risk?

A control measure can include simple steps to ensure staff understand what is and isn’t appropriate behaviour. It can be outlined in company values, a code of conduct, or a policy that covers key subjects such as bullying, sexual harassment and discrimination. It will also include the policies and procedures addressing how to make a complaint and how it will be managed.

For example, if the risk is poor lighting, a control may be an easy fix such as a new light fitting or sensor.

If supervision is an issue, you may need to assess if the risk is limited to certain periods in the day or night. You will then need to understand what steps can be taken to mitigate the risk. That could include a sufficient employee-to-supervisor ratio, always rostering on a supervisor, and providing suitable cover during breaks. It may also include ensuring supervisors have sufficient training to to identify and reduce risks themselves. An action point may be coaching or training.

If a complaint or issue does occur, a business needs to be capable of appropriately managing it. Management may involve training, mediation, an investigation or a disciplinary process.

A business may build internal capability through practical training or seek the support and advice from an expert, such as the Victorian Chamber’s Workplace Relations team.

#4: Support

A business can’t set and forget. It needs to reassess how it continues to support employees and leaders. Support will include staff and leader collaboration and interaction ensuring there is a regular opportunity for discussion.

Support may include arranging access to an employee assistance program. It can also include ensuring staff know where to get external support, such as a GP, local support groups, and support lines and services.

#5: Review

Surveys, risk assessments, controls and support are great, but businesses need to ensure they are working and continue to manage new and changing risks. Surveys and risks assessments should be undertaken regularly – at least annually and after a key event.

As you continue to manage risk, you will learn and improve.

Need support?

If you need assistance implementing a proactive management plan, including a survey, risk assessment, coaching or training, our team of health, safety and wellbeing consultants are on hand.

If it’s time to get your policies and procedures up to date, or you are managing a current issue or complaint and need help with an investigation or disciplinary process, get in touch with our workplace relations consultants.

Victorian Chamber Complete, Connect and Employer Members are also reminded they have unlimited access to the Advice Line for instant telephone advice. The Advice Line operates between 9am to 5pm Monday to Friday on 03 8662 5222.

If you are looking to upskill your staff and strengthen your internal workplace relations capabilities, visit the Victorian Chamber’s training directory. Many short courses are available, including our popular Equal Employment Opportunity course, which covers bullying, sexual harassment and discrimination.

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