Sexual harassment at work

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Everyone has the right to have a workplace free from sexual harassment. If you’re being sexually harassed at work, there are things you can do to make it stop.

Remember: if you, or someone else, is in immediate danger you should call the police on 000. If there is no immediate danger but you or someone else needs police assistance, phone 131 444.

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What is sexual harassment in the workplace?

Sexual harassment in any setting is never OK and it is never your fault. There are special laws that specifically prohibit sexual harassment in the workplace, which is any unwanted or unwelcome sexual behaviour which makes a person feel offended, humiliated or intimidated.

It can include things like: 

  • unwelcome touching or staring
  • suggestive comments or jokes
  • sexually explicit pictures or posters at work
  • unwanted invitations to go out on dates or to have sex
  • intrusive questions about a person’s private life or body
  • unnecessary familiarity, such as deliberately brushing up against a person
  • sexual behaviour aimed at you or in your presence: such as any unwelcome gesture, action or comment of a sexual nature.  This can be spoken or in writing, for example through SMS texting, or Facebook. 

For behaviour to be sexual harassment, it must be unwelcome. So, behaviour of a sexual nature which you agree or consent to is not sexual harassment. 

Is sexual harassment against the law?

It is against the law for someone sexually harass you in your employment.

All employers in Australia also have what is called a positive duty to prevent workplace sexual harassment, sex discrimination and victimisation. This means that your employer has to actively prevent workplace sexual harassment, sex discrimination and victimisation – rather than just responding to sexual harassment complaints when they occur.

The government has recently introduced lots of new reforms in this area, and have created a website with information about your rights and sexual harassment at work. You can find more information about this here: Respect@Work.

Sexual harassment may also be a crime including sexual or indecent assault. For more information on sexual assault, please see our Sexual Assault fact sheet.

What’s the difference between sexual harassment, discrimination, harassment and bullying?

Sexual harassment is different to discrimination, bullying or other types of harassment (like being harassed because of your gender). For information about these areas, click on the links below:

Discrimination in the workplace is when someone treats you differently (worse) based on a particular personal characteristic, like being pregnant or having a disability.  For example, it would be discrimination if you don’t get a promotion just because you have a disability.

Workplace bullying and harassment are dealt with similarly at law. Harassment is when someone treats you in a way that is offensive, intimidating, humiliating or threatening AND that is done because you have a particular personal characteristic, like your race, being gay, or having a disability. Bullying is when someone repeatedly acts unreasonably towards you and their behaviour creates a risk to your health and safety.  There are different laws which cover these types of behaviour, so please click on our Bullying & Harassment factsheet for more information.

Sexual harassment at work is a specific type of harassment at work, which is any unwanted or unwelcome sexual behaviour which makes you feel offended, humiliated or intimidated.

What is the difference between sexual harassment and sex discrimination?

Sex discrimination happens when you are treated less favourably than another person because of your sex. It can happen at work, shopping, at school or in other situations.

Sexual harassment can is any unwanted or unwelcome sexual behaviour which makes you feel offended, humiliated or intimidated, but there can be a crossover between the two.  For more information on discrimination see Discrimination in the workplace.

What can you do about sexual harassment at work?

You shouldn’t have to put up with any type of unwelcome sexual conduct by anyone you work with, whether they’re your colleague or your boss. It is never your fault.

It is common for people to feel unsure about how or when to speak up about sexual harassment at work but there are lots of places that can help.

If you think you have been sexually harassed at work, you can do any of the following options you feel comfortable with:

  1. Keep a written record

You should keep a written record of everything that has happened, when it happened and the names of any people who saw what happened. This can help in any investigation or legal case. You can keep notes in your phone if you want. However, it is still sexual harassment if there was only one incident.

  1. Talk to someone you trust a work about it, if you feel comfortable

The first step is to see if your work has any policy about sexual harassment and what to do about it. You can ask your HR representative for a copy.  If it does, it might have information about how to resolve the problem.  If your workplace doesn’t have a policy, or an HR department, you can talk to your manager about what’s happening.

If you’re nervous about talking to your boss or anyone else from management, you might want to put the complaint in writing, or have a trusted friend sit in the meeting with you to support you.  You can also practice having difficult conversations on the FWO website here.

If the person sexually harassing you is your boss, supervisor, or HR manager and there’s no one else from work to talk to about it, there are other ways to get help.

  1. Ask your union for help

If you are a member of a union, you can talk to your representative or a union official about what’s going on. They will be able to tell you how they can help and guide you through the process. Click here if you are unsure which union you can join: Trade Unions

  1. Make a Sexual Harassment Application to the Fair Work Commission

You can make an application to the Fair Work Commission:

  1. If the sexual harassment hasn’t stopped; or
  2. Your employer isn’t dealing with the dispute properly (e.g., they may not have properly investigate your complaint, you think their decision is unfair, or your boss is the person who is sexually harassing you).

The application, and information on how to fill it out, can be found here.

You do not need to tell your employer if you have lodged this application; the Fair Work Commission will do that.

What if I'm employed by a State body?

If you are employed by a state entity, or a not-for-profit – e.g., SA Health, you may not be able to use this application, but there are still options available for you. Please click here to learn what you can do depending on what state you live in.

The Federal Governments ‘Respect@Work’ portal also has helpful guides on State & Territory based options to deal specifically with workplace sexual harassment: External Pathways – Workplace Sexual Harassment

People you can talk to for support

If you have experienced sexual harassment and would like to talk to a counsellor about what happened, or about anything else on your mind, you can contact the following free services.

Navigating this information may seem overwhelming. If you are under 25, experiencing sexual harassment at work and don’t know what to do, please contact us here for free legal advice.

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