Understanding Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

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Home > Blog > Understanding Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Understanding Your Rights

There’s no doubt about it, sexual harassment in the workplace has grown significantly in the past 15 years. In a Commission Inquiry into this matter, it was found that one in three people experienced workplace sexual harassment in the past five years, compared to a 15-year earlier study that cited only one in ten. With 39% of Australian women and 26% of Australian men admitting to having been sexually harassed in their workplace, it’s a shocking fact that we should be dealing with*.

While that statistic might be frightening, what can be even more surprising is that only 51% of witnesses to sexual harassment took action on it. Some of these statistics may stem from a lack of understanding of what sexual harassment in the workplace is and looks like.

What Defines Sexual Harassment

We all seem to be of the understanding that harassment and particularly sexual harassment is bad, but do we understand what even constitutes as sexual harassment? Sexual harassment is a broad term for a range of different incidents that may take place, but it is generally defined as any unwelcome sexual conduct, advances and comments in the workplace.

Some examples of sexual harassment are as follows;

  • Inappropriate physical or suggested physical advances such as kissing, hugging, touching of inappropriate areas, and unwelcome physical touch
  • Comments, jokes and ‘talk’ of sexual abuse or harassment
  • Unwelcome sexual jokes or comments made about a person
  • Sexually explicit images, videos or emails shared or sent without consent
  • Sexual leading questions
  • Inappropriate abuse of power, or ‘cornering’

As you can see through the examples, they all share the common theme of being inappropriate and unwelcome. If anything in the workplace makes you feel uneasy or you feel that it was inappropriate, it’s good to chat with a manager, supervisor or colleague you trust about the incident.

What The Law Says

Sexual Harassment in the workplace comes under the Sex Discrimination Act 1984, which states the previously described actions as unlawful. The Act is very thorough with its covering grounds, ensuring all types of employees come under the umbrella of this law. The workplace in question is defined as ‘where the harasser works’, ‘where the person being harassed work’s’, or ‘where both parties work.’ It also includes a range of different working scenarios, so no matter whether you’re contracted, part-time, subcontractor, prospective employee or commission agent, your rights are covered. No matter where or how your working title is defined, if you are sexually harassed in the workplace, the Sex Discrimination Act defines it as unlawful.

What Should You Do

If you have been on the receiving end of any sexual harassment in your workplace, the next step is contacting your HR department or representative as soon as possible and provide them with a detailed explanation of the incident. Include details like the place and time, if there were any witnesses to the incident and exactly what transpired. It can be daunting to make that first step, but the law is there to protect you, and your employer should have your safety at the forefront of their mind. You should also consider speaking with an employment lawyer, who will be able to give you legal advice and help you understand your rights. 

If you are a witness to sexual harassment in the workplace, it is important that you speak up, intervene and stand up for the person who was experienced this. You can report anonymously, or chat to the manager or HR department about what you saw. People standing up for victims and speaking out will ensure to send the message that this type of behaviour will not be tolerated.

If you or someone you know is experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace, speaking up will make the world of difference. For further advice, speak to an employment lawyer today. 

*Statistics from the Sexual Harassment National Telephone Survey 2012 and the Australian Human Right’s Commission’s National Inquiry – Roy Morgan Research.

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