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Managers and supervisors must ensure that everybody in the workplace is free from sexual harassment. The following article explores those responsibilities and what to do if harassment occurs.

Despite being outlawed for more than 25 years, sexual harassment remains a problem in Australian workplaces, the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) concedes. In fact, nearly one in five complaints received by the AHRC under the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Commonwealth) relate to sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment comes at a considerable cost, both to affected individuals and to business, AHRA says. It is important that employers take active steps to prevent sexual harassment and respond effectively when it occurs, its Sexual Harassment: Know where the line is report says.

What is sexual harassment?
AHRC’s report says sexual harassment is defined in the Sex Discrimination Act as “any unwelcome sexual advance, request for sexual favours or conduct of a sexual nature in relation to the person harassed in circumstances where a reasonable person would have anticipated the possibility that the person harassed would be offended, humiliated or intimidated”.

Tackling violence, harassment and bullying and building community understanding and respect for human rights are two of the AHRC’s priority areas.

Sexual harassment is also one of five priority areas for action contained in the commission’s Gender Equality Blueprint 2010.

Employers and unions, meantime, are doing their bit to defeat discrimination, joining with the cmn in a tripartite partnership called the Know Where the Line Is . The national awareness raising strategy is a combined effort by the cmn, employer body the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Australian Council of Trade Unions to prevent and reduce the harm of sexual harassment in Australian workplaces.

Sexual harassment prevalence surveys
While falling, harassment rates still remain unacceptably high, latest AHRA figure suggest. Since 2002, the cmn has conducted national sexual harassment phone surveys every five years. The aim of these surveys is to provide robust evidence on the prevalence, nature and extent of sexual harassment in Australian workplaces.

The cmn’s third sexual harassment survey, conducted in 2012, found that approximately one in five (21%) people over the age of 15 years experienced sexual harassment in the workplace in the previous five year period. It also found that sexual harassment continues to affect more women than men. Thirty-three per cent (33%) of women have been sexually harassed since the age of 15, compared to fewer than 9% of men.

An earlier cmn survey, conducted in 2008, found that 22% of females and 5% of males had experienced sexual harassment in the workplace at some time, compared to 28% of females and 7% of males in 2003.

It also found a lack of understanding as to what sexual harassment is. Around one in five (22%) respondents who said they had not experienced sexual harassment then went on to report having experienced behaviours that may in fact amount to sexual harassment under the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth).

Bystander approaches
In July 2012 the cmn released a new research paper, Encourage. Support. Act!: Bystander approaches to sexual harassment in the workplace, which is a comprehensive examination of the way bystander intervention can be applied to addressing sexual harassment in workplaces. Bystanders are individuals who observe sexual harassment firsthand, or are subsequently informed of the incident.

Written by Associate Professor Paula McDonald from Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane and Dr Michael Flood from the University of Wollongong, Encourage. Support. Act examines the role bystander intervention strategies are already playing in other areas such as whistle blowing, racial harassment, workplace bullying and anti-violence.

Amendments to the Act
In June 2013, the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Act 2013 (Cth) extended the list of circumstances to be taken into account when assessing whether or not sexual harassment has occurred, AHRA says.

Specifically, the Act replaced “marital status, sexual preference” from the existing list of circumstances in section 28A(1A)(a) of the Sex Discrimination Act with the following circumstances: “sexual orientation, gender identity, intersex status, marital or relationship status”.

The amendment to section 28A(1A)(a) recognises that a person’s “sexual orientation, gender identity, intersex status, marital or relationship status” may influence whether or not a reasonable person “would have anticipated the possibility that the person harassed would be offended, humiliated or intimidated”.

AlertForce response
AlertForce has responded to the incidence of sex harassment in Australian workplaces by offering convenient and cost effective sex discrimination training to employers, in the form of an online module Prevention of Sexual Harassment. The course can be scheduled wherever and whenever it suits managers and staff. The courses are carried out swiftly and simply, making it easy to meet responsibilities while keeping the business moving.

The Prevention of Sexual Harassment training covers compliance requirements under Equal Employment Opportunity, Sexual Harassment Prevention and/or anti workplace bullying legislation and codes of practice.

While treated in its own right through various codes of practice, workplace bullying often features in sexual harassment matters. It is best dealt with by taking steps to prevent it from occurring and responding quickly if it does occur, Safe Work Australia’s (SWA’s) Dealing with Workplace Bullying guide recommends.

The longer the bullying behaviour continues, the more difficult it is to address and the harder it becomes to repair working relationships, the guide says. The guide provides information for persons conducting a business or undertaking on how to manage the risks of workplace bullying as part of meeting their duties under the work health and safety laws.

It includes advice on what workplace bullying is, how it can be prevented and how to respond to allegations that may arise.

Meantime, in one of the first of its type, the Fair Work Commission in August 2015 issued a “stop- bullying” order that was not first determined by consent.

Thomson Reuter’s industrial relations news title Workforce reports the subject of the order was directed not to contact two former workers at a related real estate business for two years, after his former employer conceded the ex-property manager’s conduct towards the workers could be bullying.

For more specific details and training, see AlertForce’s Sexual Harassment module.

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