What employers need to know about sexual harassment in the workplace

The rise of #metoo: What employers need to know about sexual harassment in the workplace

As sexual harassment and violence continue to escalate in Australia, it’s crucial that employers take swifter action and greater precautionary measures to ensure employees feel safe in the workplace.

According to the latest Australian Bureau of Statistics data, 2.4 million Australians said they experienced harassment in the last year alone. It’s an alarming statistic that we all need to be held accountable to, and it needs to start in our workplaces.

Establish an Anti-Sexual Harassment Policy 

Workplace policies help to communicate the expected standards, behaviour and conduct of employees in your organisation and clearly state the consequences of breaching the policy. 

To protect your staff and your business, it’s essential to establish an Anti-Sexual Harassment Policy that clearly defines what is classified as sexual harassment and outlines the preventative measures as well as the processes for making and following through on a complaint.

A code of conduct should also be documented in addition to your Anti-Sexual Harassment Policy to state the high standard of behaviour that is expected in the workplace. It’s important to ensure that your business not only has these policies in place but also trains all managers and employees in the policy.  

Keep work relationships strictly professional

When you consider that you spend most of the day working alongside your colleagues, it’s only natural that friendships are formed, and guards are let down.  

But it’s important to be mindful of your actions at all times and understand that what may be conceived as harmless flirting, joking, complimenting, banter or touching to you, may be perceived as something very different to a colleague or employee. 

It’s also imperative to not allow past behaviour to be an indicator of future acceptable behaviour either. Past flirting or banter does not mean that a colleague or employee will not be uncomfortable with it in the days, weeks or months ahead. 

Relationship statuses, values and comfort levels change, so it is safer to keep work relationships strictly professional and avoid any touching in the workplace.

Respect boundaries

We all have different views and comfort levels that need to be respected in the workplace. If someone voices their concern or discomfort with behaviour and requests it to stop, their request needs to be honoured.  It’s not about someone being “too sensitive” or “too easily offended” it’s a boundary that has been established that needs to be respected.

In some cases, this may require changing your workplace culture and code of conduct to ensure everyone feels safe and comfortable in the workplace.

Be mindful of relationship breakdowns

It’s not unusual for colleagues to form a romantic relationship in the workplace. While some couples do get their happily ever after, others can get anything but, and it can result in both genuine and false sexual harassment claims in the workplace.

If you have two employees who were once a couple but have now broken up in your workplace, it’s important to organise a discussion with each party separately to discuss your expectations of their conduct and professionalism. 

If you have growing concerns after speaking with both parties and suspect that there might be an underlying issue that will impact their professional relationship it’s wise to offer mediation to help them work through any issues.

Take complaints seriously

It’s crucial that every harassment claim is taken seriously and investigated. Ensure that the processes for making and following through on a sexual harassment complaint (as listed in your Anti-Sexual Harassment Policy) are carried out and that any necessary actions are taken.

If a complaint is made it’s important to ensure that:

  • You check with the Complainant whether they wish to make a formal or informal complaint and in either case, it’s recommended that it is in writing; 
  • Where possible the Complainant is referred to your Employee Assistance Program (EAP) if you have one in place; 
  • Safety of the Complainant is prioritised and on this basis, if allegations are made the alleged Perpetrator should be immediately stood down (with pay) while the investigation is under way;
  • Any allegations should be put to the alleged Perpetrator in writing providing them with an opportunity to respond (at least seven (7) days should be given for the response)
  • Any outcome of the investigation is reported back to the Complainant and the alleged Perpetrator

In some cases, it may be appropriate or recommended to appoint an external investigator, particularly when the allegations are against a supervisor or immediate manager of the Complainant. 

Everyone has the right to feel safe at work. By putting these measures in place and investigating complaints thoroughly, employers can make sure their workplace doesn’t become another statistic.  

Stay Smart! Get Savvy!

Get Women's Agenda in your inbox