Sexual Harassment in the Workplace – Prevention and Responding

A 2018 study found that one in three Australian workers had experienced sexual harassment in the last five years. Sexual harassment affects individuals, families, businesses and the community as a whole.  It is a systemic issue across all industries.  For employees who are sexually harassed, and those witnessing it, the workplace ceases to be a safe place and the harassment itself may cause lifelong ramifications.  Businesses ability to prosper and focus on their key objectives is diminished. The annual cost of workplace sexual harassment to the Australian economy is $3.8 billion. This is a significant issue affecting victims, employees and employers and prevention needs to be front of mind for organisations.  While employers cannot guarantee prevention of sexual harassment in the workplace, there are some key measures which can be taken to ensure victims feel safe to make complaints and the processes are clearly understood by the organisation.   

The Australian Human Rights Commission released the Respect@Work: Sexual Harassment National Inquiry Report (2020) was released on 5 March 2020.  This research reveals startling statistics and shows just how important it is that every organisation takes steps to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace.  

3 tips your workplace can implement to prevent sexual harassment 

 1. Building a culture of trust and respect  

Whether you are a small business with a lack of resources, or a large organisation that has a HR department, focusing on a positive workplace culture is a crucial step to preventing sexual harassment. Employees are more likely to come forward if they feel respected in their workplace.  A positive culture within a business may reduce the prospect of sexual harassment occurring in the first place.  WEIR assists organisations to improve their workplace culture by:  

  • undertaking a detailed review of what is occurring within your organisation; and  
  • then helping you to adopt best practice methods and implement evidence-based initiatives.   

 2. Active engagement and commitment from leaders 

Strong leadership is a key foundation for providing a positive working environment that seeks to prevent workplace sexual harassment. Leaders have a critical role in setting the culture of an organisation and ensuring disrespectful behaviour is called out, and people feel safe to speak up. Leaders must drive cultural change and seek to break a culture of silence, and model appropriate behaviour.  Making sure your organisation has core values and intention to eliminate and not tolerate sexual harassment is crucial to preventing it in the workplace 

3. Ensuring the expectations of workplace behaviour and processes are clear 

While the #MeToo movement spiked awareness of sexual harassment, there continues to be a lack of understanding about what can constitute sexual harassment.  Fundamental to preventing sexual harassment is ensuring that employees understand what it is.  WEIR offers appropriate workplace behaviour training that targets awareness and action, including policy review that complements this approach.  Employers should aim for policies that identify sexual harassment as unlawful and unacceptable, and include the following:  

  1. Coverage of all workers at all levels;  
  2. Comprehensive definition of sexual harassment; 
  3. recognition sexual harassment is driven by gender inequality; 
  4. identification of the responsibilities of management and workers; 
  5. a clear and robust complaint process, sexual harassment investigation process and identification of sanctions and/or penalties; 
  6. options for external reporting and support channels; and 
  7. and an assurance that retaliation, reprisal or victimisation is not accepted.  

Policies should be regularly reviewed for effectiveness and need to be easily accessible to workers.  Managers and supervisors should be familiar with the policies and discuss with workers.  

Targeted education and training should also be available and encouraged for all workers. Line managers, and those in positions of power within organisations need to ensure they have the people management skills to handle sexual harassment matters.  

In preventing sexual harassment, there needs to be a clear message from senior management that sexual harassment is not tolerated and clear information about the process if someone is, or witnesses someone being harassed.   

 4. Responding to a complaint 

If you have taken all the steps to prevent sexual harassment, yet still find yourself dealing with a claim, what can you do? How an organisation handles a complaint of sexual harassment can either exacerbate or mitigate further negative impacts on the individual, and others in the workplace.  An adequate response is likely to lead to a quick resolution whereas a poor organisation response will result in additional costs and distress, along with adverse reputation and cultural impact 

Our 3 tips for dealing with a sexual harassment complaint are:  

 1. Take a victim-centred and trauma-informed approach  

Minimise further harm to the victim.  Focus on victim welfare, where their wishes, safety and wellbeing are the priorities. Taking a victim- centred approach, and ensuring this is known within the business, is more likely to ensure individuals feel comfortable coming forward.  

 2. Consider available options for dealing with complaints  

Is a formal workplace investigation the most sensible course of action? Formal investigations are commonly thought of as the only way to respond to a report of sexual harassment. However, often victims would be more content with early intervention and have alternative options for dealing with their complaint.  As part of taking a victim-centred approach, it is important to listen to the victim and ensure they are kept informed throughout any process before any action is taken.  

 3. Gather data and change your approaches to reflect it 

Once you have dealt with a complaint, gathering data on what your organisation is seeing is key to affect change.  Is mobilising bystanders a key priority? Or should increasing awareness of sexual harassment and acceptable workplace behaviour be where your priorities lie Data allows you to appropriately respond and assess if there are particular issues 

Preventing and addressing sexual harassment within the workplace needs to be a constant focus of all organisations.  If you need assistance with policy development, complaints management, training and education, and investigations related to sexual harassment, WEIR can assist 

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