Sexual harassment in the workplace

Sexual Harassment In The Workplace

Sexual harassment, bullying, discrimination and workplace misconduct are all topics that are very difficult to ignore right now, particularly with the recent release of the Set the Standard report, the result of an extensive inquiry into the culture at Parliament House and it’s associated workplaces.

The inquiry was one of several ordered by the Prime Minister Scott Morrison following allegations of sexual assault by Brittany Higgins earlier this year. Criminal charges have since been laid and the case is due to be tried in the ACT Supreme Court next year.

Sexual harassment is rife in Australian workplaces

The Set the Standard report identified some alarming findings – 37% of respondents in parliamentary workplaces had personally experienced bullying, 33% of people had personally experienced sexual harassment, and 1% had experienced an actual or attempted sexual assault.

These statistics are very similar to the national findings of the 2018 national respect@work national inquiry, which was also led by Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Kate Jenkins. Women are the majority of victims.

Over the past year there has been some legislative reform in this area, including the Sex Discrimination and Fair Work (Respect at Work) Amendment Bill 2021 which broadens the scope of the previous Act to include volunteers and self-employed contractors, and also includes provisions for ‘third-party liability’ which apply to acts of another person who caused, instructed, induced, aided, or permitted sexual or sex-based harassment. It is likely there could be more law reform to come.

What is Sexual Harassment?

The amended Sex Discrimination and Fair Work Act mentioned above, which came into effect in September 2021. It defines sexual harassment as:

  • An unwelcome sexual advance
  • An unwelcome request for sexual favours
  • Engagement in unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature.

Typically, sexual harassment stems from disrespect and abuses of power. If you feel offended, humiliated or intimidated by another person’s behaviour or conversation, particularly if it is sexual in nature, then it’s likely that you have been sexually harassed.

For far too long governments, organisations and businesses have considered ‘sexual harassment’ too difficult to define, because we each have unique levels of tolerance and acceptance. Our responses to various people and situations are as different as we are, and yes, that can make sexual harassent difficult to define. But it is not impossible. In all sexual-based offences, we must also take into consideration the issue of consent.

What to do if you have been sexually harassed

Depending on the severity of the sexual harassment, because some forms of sexual harassmsent can be criminal offences, you might want to make a formal complaint to Police. It’s important to do this as soon as possible.

You should also notify your HR manager and/or employer, with as many details as possible to assist them to deal with the incident – as much as you feel comfortable sharing.

Employers have a responsibility to provide safe and respectful workplaces so you should expect that your employer will take action, and will also support and protect you through the process of investigating your complaint.

If the police decide to lay criminal charges against the person who harassed you, you will need to seek legal advice.

Whether or not criminal charges are laid, you also have the option to take civil action. You should also seek legal advice so you understand the process involved.

If you have been a victim of bullying, discrimination or harassment or other misconduct you should also follow the above steps.

In Australia there four pieces of legislation which prevent discrimination, including the Sex Discrimination Act, the Age Discrimination Act, the Disability Discrimination Act and the Racial Discrimination Act. These pieces of legislation will help you to understand both your rights and your responsibilities within the workplace.



This post is informative only. It is not legal advice. If you have a specific legal matter you’d like to discuss, please contact us

We service NSW, but specifically the area from Coffs Harbour to Byron BayBallina, Mullumbimby and Tweed Heads regions on the Far North NSW Coast.

To learn more about The Local Court Lawyers, see our What We Do page.


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