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Workplace sexual harassment in the spotlight of national inquiry

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With the #MeToo movement launching workplace sexual harassment and bullying into the public spotlight, the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) is conducting a national inquiry into sexual harassment in Australian workplaces.

The 12-month inquiry is accepting public submissions until 31 January 2019, to be followed by a public consultation process.

The AHRC will report on the drivers of workplace sexual harassment, steps taken by employers to prevent and respond to harassment claims, and the impacts workplace sexual harassment have on individuals and workplaces.

According to a recent AHRC survey of 10,000 Australians titled ‘Everyone’s Business: 2018 Sexual Harassment Survey’, while 33% of respondents said they had experienced sexual harassment at work in the last five years only 17% made a formal complaint to their employer.

Sam McIvor, Employment and Safety Partner at Mullins, one of WorkCover Queensland’s panel law firms, said it is important that Queensland employers understand their legal obligations to educate workers about appropriate office behaviour and ensure that robust procedures for managing harassment claims are used.

'Employers can be held legally responsible for acts of discrimination or harassment that occur in the workplace or in connection with a person’s employment,' Mr McIvor said.

'Given that the most common types of workplace sexual harassment include offensive, sexually suggestive comments or jokes, employers need to embed a workplace culture that explicitly calls out these behaviours as unacceptable.'

However, it is the psychological and social impacts on employees who make sexual harassment claims which can cause significant emotional and reputational damage. The AHRC’s Everyone’s Business survey found almost 20% of respondents claimed they had been labelled troublemakers, ostracised by their employer, victimised or ignored by colleagues after lodging a claim.

It is important that employers develop and implement policies in their workplace to ensure that all staff are aware what types of behaviours constitute harassment and that harassing behaviour will not be tolerated. All staff need to be trained so they understand these policies and ensure they are reinforced so employees know how to report such behaviour in the unfortunate event that it does occur.

Mullins recently hosted a breakfast briefing on the topic MeToo and workplace health. WorkCover CEO, Bruce Watson and Legal Counsel, Janine Reid also participated. Topics covered included: recent sexual harassment court cases, legal principles applied to sexual harassment, definitions for damages and vicarious liability, and trends in mental health conditions and the compensation scheme. A copy of the presentations can be found here.

For more information on the AHRC’s national enquiry into sexual harassment in Australian workplaces, visit the AHRC’s website.

Last updated
06 December 2018