Effective sexual harassment policies key to a safer workplace

Published May 10, 2021 (last updated January 25, 2022) -

Both large and small business owners must take note of acceptable business conduct, following the release of a 900-page report on sexual harassment in the workplace.

The [email protected] report found sexual harassment is not isolated to just a few cases, and that Australia’s laws, workplace practices, and community attitudes have contributed to the surprisingly high rates of sexual harassment.

No matter the industry, sexual harassment claims cannot be taken lightly. It not only affects the victims, but also the reputation of the business.

Employsure, Australia’s largest workplace relations advisor, believes when running a business, an employer has an obligation to provide and ensure, as far as reasonably practicable, a fair, safe, and healthy working environment for their workers and other people in the workplace.

“A safe workplace is one where everyone is treated with respect, and where no individual or group, regardless of their gender, race, or sexual orientation, feels threatened or intimidated. As such, a workplace has to have current and enforceable policies in place to manage the risks,” said Employsure Business Partner Josh Paterson.

“Written sexual harassment policies are an essential feature of HR policies and procedures that clearly define the standards of acceptable workplace behaviour. Employees who may be the victim of unwanted sexual advances need to have adequate support and access to a reporting mechanism that alerts their employers to inappropriate behaviour, so swift action can be taken.”

If employers have not done so already, they need to formalise a zero-tolerance stance on sexual harassment in their relevant policies and procedures. With a position clearly defined, it should be articulated to employees through every communication method available. Every employee should be aware of the policy, and how sexual harassment is defined in the workplace. Employee management software like BrightHR can help easily distribute key internal documents and policies company-wide.

While a written sexual harassment policy can outline the standards of acceptable behaviour and conduct, training employees regularly will help them retain the information. Training sets out in very clear terms the type of behaviour that is unacceptable in the workplace.

If a sexual harassment complaint does arise, it is important staff are aware of the process to make such complaints. It is also imperative their information and details will be treated seriously and confidentially. Sexual harassment is based on a reasonable persons test, that is, would a reasonable person anticipate if the person harassed would feel offended, humiliated, or intimidated? This means it doesn’t matter what the intention of the harasser was.

Even if the incident took place out-of-hours and outside the workplace, if there is a sufficient connection with the workplace, for example a work organised Christmas party, the claim must still be properly investigated by the employer.

Conversely, employers may also need to introduce policies for when consensual workplace romances occur. Workplace relationships have become an especially timely issue, with employees and employers collectively asking – are workplace relationships ever acceptable, and if so, what rules should govern them?

Banning office romance outright is not a realistic or enforceable position for an employer. At best, it encourages employees to sneak around, while at worst, it can be considered a breach of privacy by employees who can become demoralised or resentful.

A better option is to introduce policies that provide clearer definitions of acceptable office behaviour. This allows employers to act if romantic relationships impact on work duties or conduct, without banning the romance altogether.

Even if a workplace has a more relaxed attitude to internal romance, it is in the best interest of the employer to consider how they might handle these specific kinds of relationships and still have a positive and respectful workplace culture.

“No workplace is immune to sexual harassment, and it is unfortunate it takes the release of reports to spark necessary dialogue about the implications of unwanted or offensive behaviour in the workplace,” continued Mr Paterson.

“Sexual harassment is set to take greater prominence in the world of employment relations, and it’s important business owners take appropriate action where necessary, and have the relevant policies and procedures in place to protect their business and staff.”

Further enquiries:

Matthew Bridges

[email protected]

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