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Harassment including sexual harassment

Workplace harassment refers to behaviour that is unwelcome or unsolicited, offensive, humiliating or intimidating, and relates to someone’s sex, race, age or other protected attribute (under the Anti-Discrimination Act 1991). It may be directed towards an individual or group of workers, and may be a single act, or an ongoing pattern of behaviour.

It may be perpetrated by a person's employer, a co-worker or group of that person’s co-workers.

It is important to note that if someone finds a particular behaviour offensive, humiliating or intimidating, and it relates to their sex, race, age or any of the listed attributes, then it is considered harassment. These include:

  • Sex
  • Pregnancy or breastfeeding status
  • Race
  • Age
  • Marital or domestic status
  • Sexuality
  • Disability

What is sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment relates to any unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature that is done either to offend, humiliate or intimidate another person, or where it is reasonable to expect the person might feel that way. It includes uninvited physical intimacy such as touching in a sexual way, uninvited sexual propositions and remarks with sexual connotations.

Harassment and sexual harassment may be committed by co-workers, supervisors, managers, customers, clients, patients, visitors or others who interact with a worker or group of workers (for example people who work for other businesses and share the same workplace such as sub-contractors on a worksite, or a delivery person and retail worker).

Sexual harassment can also include behaviour that, while not directed at a particular person, can affect someone who is exposed to it or witnesses it (for example overhearing sexual comments or being exposed to sexually explicit posters in a workplace) .

Sexual harassment is not always obvious, repeated or continuous, and may be a one-off incident.

Workplace harassment may include:

  • telling insulting jokes about particular racial groups
  • making derogatory comments or taunts about someone’s disability
  • sharing inappropriate images, videos, emails, text messages, social media messages, letters or notes about an individual or group of workers’ personal characteristics.

Workplace sexual harassment may include:

  • asking intrusive questions about a person’s body
  • staring, leering or unwelcome touching (e.g. deliberately brushing up against a person or touching them in a sexual way)
  • sexual or suggestive comments, jokes or innuendo
  • sharing sexually inappropriate images or videos
  • uninvited sexual propositions.

What is not workplace harassment?  

  • reasonable management action taken in a reasonable way
  • performance management and disciplinary action taken in accordance with departmental policy and industrial relations legislation

What are the risks?

Harassment including sexual harassment can cause a stress response which when frequent, prolonged or severe may cause physical or psychological injury to a worker.

Harassment or sexual harassment may occur in isolation, however often will occur in combination with other psychosocial hazards at work (which combined may increase risk of harm).

Like all work health and safety risks, harassment including sexual harassment must be managed.

How do I manage the risks?

Everyone at work has a responsibility for health and safety, both physical and psychological.

For workers

As a worker, you must take reasonable care of your own health and safety in your place of work, and the health and safety of others who may be affected by your actions. You must also follow any reasonable instructions given by the person who conducts a business or undertaking (PCBU).

For businesses

As a person conducting a business or undertaking (PCBU), you have a primary duty of care to ensure the health and safety of your workers and others in your place of work. You must provide and maintain, so far as is reasonably practicable, a safe and healthy working environment. You must also talk with your workers (and with other PCBUs when required) about health and safety issues.

Following a four-step risk management process will help your business meet its responsibilities under work health and safety (WHS) laws.

The first step is to identify hazards in your place of work. This means looking at everything from the work environment to work tasks, how they’re carried out, and the way work is designed and managed.

Situations that may increase the risk or likelihood of harassment include:

  • particular cohorts of workers who are more vulnerable such as young workers, workers with a disability, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander workers, workers in insecure or precarious forms of employment, and workers on working visas
  • low worker diversity (e.g. the workforce is dominated by one gender, age group, race or culture)
  • power imbalances (e.g. workplaces where one gender holds most of the management and decision-making positions) or workplaces organised according to a hierarchical structure (e.g. police and enforcement organisations, or medical or legal professions)
  • workplace cultures that support or tolerate sexual harassment, including where lower level (but still harmful) forms of harassment are accepted (e.g. small acts of disrespect and inequality are ignored and reports of sexual harassment or inappropriate behaviours are not taken seriously). This conduct can escalate to other forms of harassment, work-related bullying/violence and aggression.

Sometimes, a worker may avoid reporting concerns because:

  • it’s thought to be ‘part of the job’ and nothing can be done about it
  • the worker believes that only ‘serious incidents or issues’ are to be reported
  • there’s a belief that nothing will happen if they report
  • the worker believes they will be blamed for not being able to handle the job
  • the reporting process is time-consuming and complex
  • the workplace culture encourages “just getting on with it”.

To determine if harassment is potential hazard in your place of work:

  • talk with health and safety representatives, health and safety committees and workers
  • walk through and inspect your place of work, including how people interact
  • review workers’ compensation claims
  • refer to industry standards and guidelines
  • review the hazard and incident reports, exit reports and complaints.

A risk assessment involves thinking about what could happen if someone is exposed to a hazard (the consequence of exposure) and the likelihood of it happening.

Psychosocial hazards may interact or combine to increase the overall psychosocial risk so need to be considered together.

A risk assessment can help you figure out:

  • the severity of a risk
  • whether any effective control measures are in place
  • what actions you can take to control this risk
  • how quickly you should act.

To determine the likelihood that someone will be harmed by harassment at work, ask yourself:

  • has it happened before, either in this place of work or somewhere else?
  • if it has happened, how often does it happen?

To determine the possible consequences, ask yourself:

  • will it cause minor or serious injury, or death?

After the risks have been identified and assessed, you'll need to control them. Risk control measures should be selected on the basis of highest protection and most reliability.

Control measures

  • Eliminating the risk
    The most effective control measure is to eliminate the hazard and associated risk. If you are unable to eliminate the hazard, you must identify ways to ensure you are managing it in a way that minimises risks to health and safety.
  • Minimising the risk
    If it’s not reasonably practicable to eliminate the hazard, the risk should be minimised by using a range of control measures, for example:
    • Provide facilities that give privacy and security.
    • Ensure the layout of the workplace provides good visibility of work areas and avoids restrictive movement. Ensure there are no areas where workers could become trapped, such as rooms with keyed locks.
    • Provide communication systems like phones or duress alarms (and provide workers with information, instruction and training on how to use these).
    • Ensure a safe working environment for workers during access and egress from the workplace, during travel, at client or customer premises and any other location where work is performed.
  • Using administrative controls
    You must also use administrative controls if there is still a risk after you’ve tried to reduce it with other control measures. Administrative controls protect your workers by working in ways that reduce their exposure to a hazard, for example:
    • Empower workers to refuse, restrict or suspend service if people fail to comply with the expected standard of behaviour.
    • Set standards of behaviour and procedures for what a worker should do if they experience or see harassment at work or work-related events or from third parties to the workplace (including sexual harassment).

You may need to use a combination of these control measures to meet your responsibilities under WHS laws. Refer to the Managing the risk of psychosocial hazards at work Code of Practice 2022 for more information.

Risk management should be an ongoing process in your business, and you should review your control measures regularly. Don’t wait until something goes wrong.

In some situations, WHS legislation requires you to review controls.

These are:

  • when the control measure is not effective in controlling the risk
  • before a change that might give rise to a new risk
  • when you identify a new hazard or risk
  • when consultation with workers indicates a review is needed
  • when the dynamic and complexity of your business changes, for a new supervisor or worker
  • after a health and safety representative requests a review.

A review of risk control measures should be undertaken after incidents or complaints involving harassment.

A review of risk control measures can include an examination of:

  • the physical work environment
  • work systems and procedures
  • worker training and information
  • the consultation processes in your place of work.

Legislation and Codes of practice

You should read through the relevant legislation and codes of practice carefully to make sure your business is complying with the health and safety duties in the WHS Act.

Other legislation

A range of laws deal with mental health issues in Queensland workplaces.

Further support

You may wish to contact an organisation listed below for further information or support.

  • Mental Health Commission
  • Lifeline Australia – 13 11 14
  • Mental Health access line – 1300 642 255 a confidential mental health telephone triage service that provides the first point of contact to public mental health services to Queenslanders. Available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and links callers to the nearest Queensland Public Mental Health service.
  • Suicide Call Back Service – 1300 659 467
  • Beyond Blue – 1300 22 46 36
  • 13 YARN – 13 92 76 for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people
  • Heads Up – information and resources on developing a healthy workplaces
  • Workers’ Psychological Support Service – assists Queensland workers who have experienced a work-related psychological injury.
  • Injury Prevention and Management Program – IPaM is a joint initiative delivered by WHSQ and WorkCover Queensland. It is a free program designed to help Queensland businesses develop and implement sustainable health, safety and injury management systems.