Preventing and responding to sexual harassment in the workplace

23 August 2021

As highlighted in the National Inquiry into Sexual Harassment in the Workplace report, businesses need to act now to eliminate and respond to sexual harassment in the workplace.

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Sexual harassment is any unwanted or unwelcome sexual behaviour where a reasonable person would have anticipated the possibility that the person harassed would feel offended, humiliated or intimidated. 

recent national inquiry into Australian workplaces revealed the prevalence of workplace sexual harassment and it's cost to the economy, including loss of productivity and staff turnover. 

The Respect@Work: National Inquiry into Sexual Harassment in the Workplace report made several recommendations to improve the coordination, consistency and clarity between the anti-discrimination, employment and work health and safety legislation. 

One key recommendation from the inquiry came into effect on 10 July 2021 - expanding the definition of serious misconduct to include sexual harassment.  

Managing the risk of sexual harassment 

As a serious occupational health and safety issue, incidents of sexual harassment in the workplace can have significant and lasting effects on the individual and organisation. The Equal Opportunity Act 2010 (Vic) requires employers to take a proactive approach to both preventing sexual harassment in the workplace and responding to a complaint of sexual harassment.  

Prevention 

Preventing sexual harassment requires a multifaceted approach. Often businesses will develop a sexual harassment prevention strategy encompassing the depth and breadth of steps it will take to ensure a safe working environment, including a timeframe for each one.  

Safe work systems and procedures 

A robust grievance and complaints policy is a valuable tool that provides a reporting option for  complainants to use to have a matter resolved promptly, objectively and as close to the source as possible. This policy should be regularly reviewed to ensure it remains compliant and consistent with the current reporting structure.  

Businesses which do not have a policy are encouraged to develop and introduce one, keeping in mind business’ needs. Victorian Chamber members without a policy are welcome to download a policy template via the member tools and templates portal. 

Training, information and instruction – managers and employees 

Businesses should undertake regular training on sexual harassment and what is deemed acceptable workplace behaviour. This may include highlighting policies such as the code of conduct and the equal opportunity policy. The learnings of such trainings and the core expectations of such policies can be embedded into the workplace by displaying information on a notice board, distributing brochures and posters, and verbally reinforcing expectations.     

Often workplace policies include expectations and responsibilities for managers. Managers also benefit from being trained on the requirements of such policies to help them identify hazards and risk factors in the workplace, to equip them with tools for early intervention and how to respond to reports of sexual harassment.  

Responding to complaints 

The process for handling a grievance or complaint lodged by an employee can be a complex process, especially where early, informal conversations have failed. Depending on the nature of the matter a mediation or workplace investigation may be required. For best results seek advice early to understand and explore options.    

Mediation is a voluntary process where an impartial third party can assist two parties come to a mutually agreed outcome. 

Investigations are formal processes to consider allegations of inappropriate workplace conduct. The need for investigations can arise with any serious workplace issue; however, when these issues may lead to an employee’s dismissal, the need for an investigation is clear. 

The Victorian Chamber’s comprehensive Workplace Relation’s Consulting Services are a cost effective, ‘end-to-end’ solution, regardless of your employment issues and your location. If your business requires immediate HR expertise, our consultants can support your success by undertaking a mediation or investigation.  

How we can help

Regardless of the size of your business, your industry or the issues faced, our Workplace Relations Consultants are experienced change management experts who can help you every step of the way. 

Contact our Workplace Relations Advice Line on 03 8662 5222 to speak to our team about handling employee reluctance to return to the office, or to discuss the process for handling a grievance or complaint. 

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