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Workplace sexual harassment

Sexual harassment is a known workplace hazard that can cause psychological and physical harm. It is unlawful under the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act 1984 and is also prohibited by state and territory anti-discrimination laws.


Comcare’s regulatory responsibility is to monitor and enforce compliance with the Commonwealth Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (WHS Act).

There are a number of pieces of legislation that apply to sexual harassment including work health and safety laws, discrimination and equal opportunity laws, workplace relations laws, workers’ compensation laws and criminal laws at Commonwealth, state, and territory levels.

National guidance

Safe Work Australia has national guidance on workplace sexual harassment and accompanying guidance on workplace bullying.

Australian Human Rights Commission also has a range of resources available:

Comcare resources

Comcare has regulatory and practical guidance to help employers, managers and supervisors and workers prevent and respond to workplace sexual harassment and comply with their duties under the WHS Act.

These guides should be read in conjunction with Safe Work Australia’s national guidance on workplace sexual harassment.

Training and learning

We provide education products focused on the prevention, management and reporting of workplace sexual harassment, which are freely available via our learning management system called Comcare LMS. To access our training, you first need to login or create an account in Comcare LMS (see the steps to create an account).

The products are designed for workers, employers, and managers covered under the Commonwealth Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (WHS Act).

For more information about the courses we offer, see Training and learning.

Comcare’s role and approach

Comcare’s purpose is to promote and enable safe and healthy work. We recognise workplace sexual harassment as a psychosocial hazard which has the potential to cause workers psychological or physical harm.

As the national work health and safety and workers' compensation authority, Comcare’s legislated functions include securing the health and safety of workers and workplaces. Our functions also include responding to incidents of psychological harm, educating employers about ways to prevent and manage all forms of harm, including workplace bullying and harassment and encouraging leaders to foster a positive workplace culture where this behaviour is not tolerated.

Under the WHS Act employers must ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health and safety of workers and other persons at the workplace. While the WHS Act does not expressly refer to the risk of workplace sexual harassment, it imposes a duty on employers to eliminate or manage hazards and risks to health and safety of workers – including to prevent workplace sexual harassment.

More information about Comcare’s role and approach is available in our Regulatory guidance for employers on their work health and safety responsibilities (PDF, 1.7 MB).

There may be circumstances where an injured employee is entitled to workers’ compensation under the Safety Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 1988.

Sexual harassment definition and examples

Sexual harassment is defined in the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth) as being any unwelcome sexual advance, request for sexual favours or conduct of a sexual nature where a reasonable person, having regard to all the circumstances, would have anticipated the possibility that the person harassed would be offended, humiliated or intimidated.

Workplace sexual harassment is not defined in the WHS Act. Although workplace sexual harassment is not defined in the WHS Act, employers have a duty under the Act to eliminate or manage hazards and risks to the health and safety of workers, including to prevent workplace sexual harassment.

Examples of sexual harassment can include:

  • Unwelcome touching, hugging, cornering or kissing
  • Inappropriate staring or leering
  • Sexual gestures, indecent exposure or inappropriate display of the body
  • Sexually suggestive comments or jokes
  • Sexually explicit pictures, posters or gifts
  • Repeated or inappropriate invitations to go out on dates
  • Intrusive questions about a worker’s private life or physical appearance
  • Inappropriate physical contact
  • Being followed, watched or someone loitering nearby
  • Requests or pressure for sex or other sexual acts
  • Actual or attempted rape or sexual assault
  • Indecent phone calls, including leaving sexually explicit messages on voicemail or an answering machine
  • Sexually explicit comments made in emails, SMS messages or on social media
  • Repeated or inappropriate advances on email, social networking websites or internet chat rooms
  • Sharing or threatening to share intimate images or film without consent
  • Any other unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature that occurred online or via some form of technology.

WHS duties

Employers and workers have duties and obligations under the WHS Act.

Employer duties

Employers must:

  • Eliminate or minimise risks to the health and safety of workers and others, including sexual harassment, so far as is reasonably practicable.
  • Provide workers with policies and procedures, training and supervision to ensure instances of sexual harassment are reported without fear, shame or ‘victim blaming’.
  • Take appropriate action to respond and manage incidents.
  • Consult and cooperate with businesses that interact with their workers about measures to prevent sexual harassment.

Officer duties

The employer’s officers have a duty to exercise ‘due diligence’ to ensure the employer complies with its duties.

Due diligence requires officers to take a proactive role in ensuring their organisation has systems and procedures in place to meet its WHS obligations. Failing to exercise due diligence may attract significant personal liability for officers under the WHS Act.

Worker duties

Workers must take reasonable care that their acts or omissions do not adversely affect the health and safety of others, including co-workers. This includes:

  • Not acting in a manner which would constitute sexual harassment
  • Complying, so far as they are reasonably able, with any reasonable instruction given by the employer regarding workplace sexual harassment
  • Cooperating with any reasonable policy or procedure relating to workplace sexual harassment that has been notified to them

More information


Prevention

Practical, early action employers can take to prevent workplace sexual harassment includes:

  • Being aware of heightened risk factors such as power imbalances, isolated or remote work and poor workplace culture
  • Identifying risks inside and outside the organisation
  • Fostering a positive workplace culture of openness, trust and respect that is supported by sound policies, human resource practices and staff education and training
  • Strong leadership through executives and senior managers exemplifying the types of behaviours and cultures that prevent workplace sexual harassment
  • Adopting new and better approaches to workplace education and training that show workers how to prevent and respond to incidents of sexual harassment.

Further information is available in Comcare’s resources for employers (PDF, 4.1 MB)managers (PDF, 4.2 MB) and workers (PDF, 4.1 MB).

Safe Work Australia has detailed national guidance on workplace sexual harassment and accompanying guidance on workplace violence and aggression:

Australian Human Rights Commission also provides a national enquiry services and guidance material:

Impacts and risk management

Workplace sexual harassment can have significant social and economic impacts for workers, their families, their employers, and the wider community.

While this will depend largely on individual circumstances, the broad impacts for workers and employers can include:

  • Psychological and physical harm
  • Reputational damage
  • Lost productivity
  • Financial loss.

Examples of psychological and physical safety impacts for anyone who experiences or witnesses workplace sexual harassment:

  • Feelings of isolation, social isolation, or family dislocation
  • Loss of confidence and withdrawal
  • Physical injuries as a result of assault
  • Depression, anxiety, and stress
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Illness such as cardiovascular disease, musculoskeletal disorders, immune deficiency, and gastrointestinal disorders (for example, as a result of stress)
  • Self-harm or suicide.

Comcare also recognises that navigating the separate but sometimes intersecting laws associated with workplace sexual harassment can be overwhelming. We can assist employers and individuals to understand the work health and safety duties and frameworks associated with workplace sexual harassment.

Practical information on the impacts of workplace sexual harassment is available in Comcare’s Regulatory guidance for employers on their work health and safety responsibilities (PDF, 1.7 MB).

Risk management

Employers must eliminate or minimise the risks of workplace sexual harassment, so far as is reasonably practicable. The risk management approach to prevent workplace sexual harassment should include:

  • Identifying hazards; including the need to consult with workers when gathering information
  • Assessing risks; based on the likelihood and consequence of sexual harassment in the workplace
  • Controlling the risks; through a reasonably practicable and proactive approach, with consideration being given to matters such as:
    • the physical work environment
    • safe work systems and procedures
    • third party sexual harassment
    • addressing unwanted or offensive behaviour early
    • reporting of incidents
    • workplace behaviour policies
    • information, instruction, training and supervision
    • manager training.

    Safe Work Australia’s guide on preventing workplace sexual harassment includes detailed information on identifying hazards and assessing risks.

Workers – people most at risk

All workers are at risk of workplace sexual harassment, however the following groups have been found to be at greater risk:

  • Women (experience higher rates of workplace sexual harassment than men)
  • Young workers aged less than 30 years
  • Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, or intersex (LGBTQI) workers
  • Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander workers
  • Workers with disability
  • Workers from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) backgrounds
  • Migrant workers or workers holding temporary visas
  • People in working arrangements described as ‘precarious’ or ‘insecure’.

When and where can sexual harassment occur?

During work hours:

  • The usual workplace – e.g. office, site, or online if working from home.
  • Site visits
  • External meetings or conferences
  • Training, courses or workshops
  • Social gatherings – e.g. birthday lunches or team celebrations
  • At client or customer workplaces or homes.

Outside of work hours:

  • Work-related events or trips – e.g. corporate functions, weekend trips, workshops or training courses
  • Work related social activities – e.g. Christmas parties, office celebrations, client events or functions
  • External meetings or site visits
  • Client or customer workplaces or homes.

Responding to incidents

Employers

If anyone in your workplace is in immediate danger, call 000 and report the matter to the Police. If workers are not in immediate danger and would like to make an enquiry or report, call the Police on 131 444.

Employers should ensure workers understand the reporting process and their reporting options – formal, informal and anonymous. The process and reporting options should be actively promoted at work and key workers (contact persons that receive reports) should receive training on supporting and advising complainants.

After an incident, employers should review their risk management systems to evaluate what worked and what could be improved.

Some workers who experience or witness workplace sexual harassment choose not to report straight away. If they do report, employers should take steps including:

  • Acting quickly to communicate and document the incident and reporting process, and sharing available options for support and representation
  • Protecting the privacy and confidentiality of everyone involved and protecting all parties from victimisation.

More information


Workers

Workers who experience or witness workplace sexual harassment should report it and seek support from the employer. They should still have access to support even if they choose not to report.

Other options include:

  • Call out the behaviour and ask the instigator to stop.
  • Talk to the person experiencing harassment to see what support they need.
  • If workers are not ready to make a formal complaint, keep a record of what happens, including when it occurred and where, who was involved and anything else that may be important to ensure its documented.
  • Contact Comcare for further advice or lodge a complaint with the Australian Human Rights Commission or your state or territory anti-discrimination agency.
  • If anyone is in immediate danger, call 000 and report the matter to the Police.
  • If workers are not in immediate danger and would like to make an enquiry or report, call the Police on 131 444.

More information


Leadership and workplace culture

Building a positive workplace culture starts with strong leadership. Executives, board members and senior managers should model and enforce acceptable behaviours that align with workplace policies to prevent sexual harassment and set a standard that addresses inappropriate behaviour early, and ideally before it escalates.

More information


Workplace policy and reporting

Workplace policies are important in defining the standard of behaviour expected of workers, customers, clients and third parties. The policies should provide clear guidance around acceptable behaviours and attitudes, controls and consequences, actions and reporting, and support and referrals for workers that experience or witness sexual harassment.

Managers and supervisors can support prevention by:

  • Promoting their organisation’s sexual harassment policy and ensuring workers receive information and training about their rights, obligations and reporting pathways.
  • Setting a strong example of the types of behaviours and attitudes that create a healthy and safe work environment based on respect.
  • Building a culture of openness, trust and respect to help minimise the risk of sexual harassment and support incident reporting.
  • Being aware of enablers to sexual harassment including power imbalances, low workforce diversity (i.e. gender imbalance) or isolated working environments.
  • Identifying risks and developing an understanding of what actions to take to reduce or eliminate them, so far as reasonably practicable.

More information


Reporting options for workers

  • If anyone in the workplace is in immediate danger, call the Police on 000.
  • If workers are not in immediate danger and would like to make an enquiry or report, call the Police on 131 444.
  • Workers can also make a complaint to the Australian Human Rights Commission or relevant state or territory anti‑discrimination body. A solicitor advocate or union can also make a complaint to the Commission on their behalf.
  • Comcare may be able to investigate if an employer is meeting their WHS obligations in relation to workplace sexual harassment or if workers believe they have been discriminated against in regard to their employment for raising a health and safety issue. For workers covered by Comcare, workers can make an inquiry or seek advice via whs.help@comcare.gov.au or call us on 1300 366 979.

More information


Mental health and wellbeing

Employers have a primary duty under the WHS Act to ensure the physical and psychological health and safety of their workers and other people.

Everyone has a responsibility in the workplace to:

  • Reasonably comply with health and safety instructions.
  • Take reasonable care of their own mental health.
  • Take reasonable care that their actions do not adversely affect the health and safety of other people.

Comcare has a range of resources to support mentally healthy workplaces:

Support services

Managers and supervisors can advocate the use of these support services for workers:

  • Employee Assistance Program (EAP)
  • 1800RESPECT 1800 737 732
  • Sexual Assault Services
  • Lifeline 13 11 14
  • Beyond Blue Support Service 1300 22 4636
  • For employers covered by Comcare, make an inquiry or seek advice via whs.help@comcare.gov.au or call us on 1300 366 979.
  • If anyone in the workplace is in immediate danger, call the Police on 000.
  • If workers are not in immediate danger and would like to make an enquiry or report, call the Police on 131 444.
Page last reviewed: 02 June 2021
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Comcare
GPO Box 9905, Canberra, ACT 2601
1300 366 979 | www.comcare.gov.au

Date printed 19 Jun 2021

https://www.comcare.gov.au/safe-healthy-work/prevent-harm/workplace-sexual-harassment