Summary publication

Foreword

The ability to work in a safe environment, free from sexual harassment, is a basic human right. 

Steps have been taken in recent years to ensure the practical realisation of this right in Australian workplaces.  For example, the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth) was amended in 2011  and again in 2013  to strengthen protections against sexual harassment, including in the workplace.  Many employers have also created initiatives to combat this serious business problem, including developing and implementing policies and procedures on sexual harassment. 

Yet, significant gaps in the implementation of the right to a safe working environment continue to exist.  The result is persistent and pervasive sexual harassment in Australian workplaces.  According to the Australian Human Rights Commission’s 2012 national telephone survey, workplace sexual harassment affects around 21% of people aged 15 years and older.   We have also seen the emergence of new and different forms of sexual harassment, facilitated in part by the increasing use of social media and other technologies at work. 

The effects of sexual harassment are costly not only to the individual employees who experience it and the bystanders who witness or later hear about it, but also to the businesses in which it occurs.  Consequences such as reduced morale, absenteeism, injury to reputation and the loss of shareholder confidence show that sexual harassment is an issue that employers cannot afford to ignore. 

If we are to succeed in creating safe workplaces where sexual harassment is a problem of the past, all of us—employers, employees, employer associations and unions, and government—need to work together to bridge the divide between law and practice.  And we need to ensure that every workplace participant understands that sexual harassment destroys lives, divides teams and damages business productivity. 

I am therefore pleased to publish Ending Workplace Sexual Harassment: A Resource for Small, Medium and Large Employers.  The resource aims to assist small, medium and large employers to understand and meet their legal obligations under the Sex Discrimination Act.  It also provides practical guidance on how employers can prevent sexual harassment and how to respond effectively when it occurs.  In addition, the resource discusses recent legal developments concerning workplace sexual harassment and canvasses some of the new and innovative approaches to addressing sexual harassment in the workplace, including enlisting the help of bystanders. 

I hope that this resource will help employers create healthy and safe workplaces in which all women and men are able to work without fear.  After all, being safe at work is both a basic human right and a business imperative. 

Elizabeth Broderick
Sex Discrimination Commissioner
Australian Human Rights Commission
May 2014