It isn’t news to any employer that they have a paramount responsibility to keep their employees safe. We’ve previously written about various areas where this is required including when working from home and when it comes to bullying in the workplace. Another particularly prevalent issue employers are obligated to protect their employees from is sexual harassment in the workplace.
The truth is, sexual harassment is more prevalent in Australia than you might realise. A 2018 study found that 72% of Australians over the age of 15 had experienced sexual harassment in their lifetimes. The same study showed that almost two in five women (39%) and one in four men (26%) had experienced sexual harassment in the workplace (Australian Human Rights Commission).
It was in 2014 that the Federal Court of Australia handed down a decision (Richardson v Oracle Corporation Australia Pty Ltd) which highlighted the potential for employers to be liable for compensation in instances where they had not adhered to their responsibilities to manage and eliminate sexual harassment in the workplace.
There is no denying how damaging sexual harassment can be for the victims and those who witness it. In addition to this, it can also have a serious effect on workplace culture. Sexual harassment can affect work performance and create a hostile work environment for those who experience and observe it. Not only do employers have a legal obligation, but it is in your interest to take action to prevent it (Australian Human Rights Commission).
With this is in mind, here are 4 expectations your business should meet when it comes to managing and deterring sexual harassment in the workplace:
1. Have an appropriate sexual harassment policy
An important part of preventing sexual harassment is the development and implementation of a written workplace policy that makes it clear sexual harassment is unlawful and will not be tolerated under any circumstances. It may be a stand alone policy or incorporated into a broader policy on workplace harassment. This policy needs to:
- Clearly define sexual harassment
- Recognise that sexual harassment is unlawful;
- Declare that sexual harassment will not be tolerated;
- Identify and detail strategies for addressing sexual harassment;
- Detail the consequences of breaching the policy;
- Identify the responsibilities of management and staff;
- Outline the available options for dealing with sexual harassment.
2. Ensure your employees are trained on how to identify and deal with sexual harassment
Having a clear workplace policy is vital, but just as important is ensuring people are practically trained in how to utilise the policy. Every member of your team needs to be made aware of the policy as well as their rights and obligations under the policy. You might do this through a staff meeting, emailing a copy to your staff, and displaying the policy in a readily accessible location.
Beyond that, it is vital your staff undergo ongoing training to stay on top of their knowledge when it comes to this area. It should be as widely known and as common as your fire safety training.
3. Internal procedures for dealing with complaints
Ensure you have an appropriate procedure for managing any complaints that arise. This should be a staged process that all employees have an in-depth understanding of. It is vital that this procedure is transparent, efficient, confidential and fair.
This procedure should work from when the initial complaint is made all the way to its resolution. Employers need to keep a confidential record of all complaints and reports of sexual harassment, even those that are not progressed.
It is encouraged that employers appoint complaint officers in this area so that complainants know where they can find support.
4. Take appropriate remedial action if and when sexual harassment occurs
An employer ought to commence an investigation immediately upon complaints of sexual harassment. Employers should document each step involved and clearly inform each party as to where the process is up to.
Remedial actions can be anything from an apology to disciplinary action. Employers must ensure that complainants are not disadvantaged in any way through this remedial action (such as a reduction in hours, demotion or workplace bullying).
It is also important that employers make systematic changes in the workplace to prevent reoccurrence of sexual harassment.
If a sexual harassment situation in your workplace arises, it may be prudent to immediately seek expert human resources or legal advice to assist you in safely navigating this process for all parties concerned.