Unfortunately, dealing with allegations of sexual harassment in the workplace is an issue for many employers. Sexual harassment can take many forms, and cases are rarely "open and shut".
Once allegations of sexual harassment or misconduct have been made, they must be appropriately investigated and dealt with. However, prevention is always better than cure.
Let's take a look at employer obligations, the scale of the problem and how employers can help prevent sexual harassment in the workplace.
Employers are required by law to provide a safe workplace for all employees. This is enshrined in the workplace health and safety legislation throughout Australia (for example, s19 of the Workplace Health and Safety Act 2011 (NSW)).
Legislation requires employers to provide for physical safety, for example, by preventing unsafe worksite practices which could cause injuries to employees. It also extends to ensuring that employees are protected against physical and psychological harm caused by sexual harassment or assault, and mental harm (such as could be caused by bullying or harassment).
A 2018 sexual harassment study conducted by the Australian Human Rights Commission, found that one in three Australian workers claim to have been sexually harassed in the workplace in the past five years. This figure has increased from one in five workers in 2012, and one in ten in 2003. Of course, this may be due to employees becoming more aware of what sexual harassment is and what their rights are in relation to reporting or taking steps to report and prevent it. However, it is still a worrying statistic.
Interestingly, although sexual harassment affects both genders (with 26% of men and 39% of women interviewed reporting experiences of sexual harassment), those most likely to be harassed in the workplace are aged between 18 and 29. Moreover, despite the fairly equal gender split in victimology, the overwhelming majority (80%) of harassers are men.
There are a number of strategies that can help employers nip sexual harassment in the bud. These include:
In addition to the general requirement to provide safe working conditions for staff, there are other positive obligations on employers in relation to sexual harassment.
For example, in Victoria, the Equal Opportunity Act 2010 (VIC) imposes a positive duty on employers to prevent any sort of sexual harassment from occurring.
Similarly, employers Australia-wide may be deemed to be vicariously liable for the conduct of their employees, if it can be demonstrated that they did not take reasonable steps to prevent sexual harassment (per the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth)).
In order to protect the business, it is crucial that immediate and appropriate action by way of response to a sexual harassment notification occurs. Training managers and staff about sexual harassment and the company's stance on it is vital.
Sexual harassment in the workplace continues to be a great concern for both employees and employers. Taking active steps and educating staff is crucial in reducing the prevalence of sexual harassment in the workplace. Accordingly, WISE Workplace offers employers training programs to address and investigate workplace sexual harassment, as well as independent investigation services to review such behaviours.
WISE Workplace is a multidisciplinary organisation specialising in the investigation of workplace behaviour. We investigate matters of corporate and professional misconduct, resolve conflict through mediation and minimise the impact of inappropriate behaviour through our whistleblower services.
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