Recognising and Dealing with Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Companies in Australia have a duty of care to employees under the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 to provide a work environment that is free from sexual harassment. Sexual harassment laws do not just apply to management or employees in your workplace; it also extends to clients, suppliers, independent contractors and anyone who has a relationship with your company.

What is sexual harassment?

‘Sexual harassment is defined in the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth) as ‘any unwelcome or unwanted sexual behaviour which makes a person feel offended, humiliated and/or intimidated where that reaction is reasonable in the circumstance’. Sexual harassment can take various forms. According to sexual harassment law it can involve some or all of the following:

  • Suggestive jokes or comments
  • Sexually explicit emails or text messages
  • Intrusive questions about an employee’s private life or appearance
  • Unwanted invitations to go out on dates or requests for sex
  • UInsults or taunts of a sexual nature
  • Sexually explicit emails or SMS messages
  • Accessing sexually explicit internet sites, magazines or other material
  • Behaviour which would also be an offence under the criminal law, such as physical assault, indecent exposure, sexual assault, *Stalking or obscene communications.

Sexual harassment laws not only refers to the hours spent during official work hours, they also apply in any work-related context such as work Christmas functions, conferences, corporate functions, business or field trips and includes interactions with clients, suppliers and customers.

What should I do about it?

Keep a record

When it comes to sexual harassment in the workplace, it is important to diarise the sexual harassment that is occurring. Write down when the incident occurred and provide as much detail as possible including the date it occurred and the names and addresses of people who witnessed the harassment. If possible, keep copies of any relevant documents. Diaries can be used as evidence in a tribunal or court.

Seek advice

It is also a good idea to seek information and advice from external government bodies or associations in your respective state. However, they cannot provide legal advice and employees should obtain legal advice if they have specific questions about their employer’s obligations under the Sex Discrimination Act 1984:

Make a formal or informal complaint

Approach your direct supervisor or someone you trust such as a work safety representative, or someone from human resources (HR) to discuss the sexual harassment or make a formal complaint and start the resolution process. If possible you should try and resolve matters at an organisational level before seeking legal action.

Speak to the person harassing you

After seeking advice, if you are able to, speak to the person who is harassing you and explain their behaviour is unwanted and it is making you feel uncomfortable. This may be done with or without mediation depending on whether you have made a formal complaint. Sometimes the person does not understand how their behaviour is making you feel and addressing that behaviour directly may put a stop to it.

Proceed with legal action

If a matter cannot be dealt with through organisational processes, then contacting external parties may be considered. If the sexual harassment continues and your employer cannot or does not help, you can report the behaviour to the Anti-Discrimination Board and where there is sexual assault or violence, the police should be consulted.

If you are dismissed as a result of making a complaint, or feel that you had to resign because of the complaint, you may be entitled to lodge a claim under the Unfair Dismissal provisions of the Workplace Relations Act 1996. You may wish to seek legal advice from an experienced sexual harassment lawyer at this point to help you through the process.

Our employment lawyers in Sydney are able to advise you about your rights in regards to sexual harassment laws, workplace bullying and employment law and your options to pursuing legal action through a law firm. Our commitment is to our client, so please contact the Employment Law Team during business hours on 1800 770 780.

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