With a number of businesses under the microscope in light of their employees raising issues of sexual harassment within the workplace, it’s important that companies know how to address these incredibly sensitive issues.

What is sexual harassment?

The legal definition of sexual harassment, as stated by the Human Rights Commission, is: “An unwelcome sexual advance, unwelcome request for sexual favours or other unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature which makes a person feel offended, humiliated and/or intimidated, where a reasonable person would anticipate that reaction in the circumstances”. This can include things such as:

  • unwelcome touching;
  • staring or leering;
  • suggestive comments or jokes;
  • sexually explicit pictures or posters;
  • unwanted invitations to go out on dates;
  • requests for sex;
  • intrusive questions about a person’s private life or body;
  • unnecessary familiarity, such as deliberately brushing up against a person;
  • insults or taunts based on sex;
  • sexually explicit physical contact; and
  • sexually explicit emails or SMS text messages.

It’s important to note that sexual harassment by one employee to another can also happen outside the workplace. In such cases, the business still needs to take action to address this.

How do you address sexual harassment in the workplace?

If a business has matters of potential sexual harassment within the workplace, there is an obligation to investigate the allegations.

This means that businesses should look at launching a formal and impartial investigation to understand whether any allegations brought to its attention can be substantiated on a balance of probabilities. This could involve interviewing potential witnesses, reviewing internal communications such as emails and talking directly to the parties involved.

Depending on the nature of the allegations, it may also be appropriate to suspend the respondent (the person the allegation is against) on full pay while you fully investigate the matter. Should the respondent remain in the workplace, it is appropriate to limit the complainant (the person making the allegation) and respondent’s contact with one another until a full investigation has been conducted and the matter has been appropriately addressed.

If the allegations can be substantiated, the business should consider undertaking a disciplinary or termination process considering the severity of the conduct.

Throughout this process, it’s important to be mindful of the sensitive nature of the matter and ensure that it is addressed professionally and confidentially. While undertaking an investigation process, businesses should support the complainant as much as they can, and this could involve things such as offering access to the business’s employee assistance program (EAP).

How can a business mitigate sexual harassment occurring in the workplace?

There are two main ways in which businesses can engage with employees to mitigate the occurrence of sexual harassment within the workplace:

Formal training – undertaking formal training on workplace conduct and sexual harassment can be a great education process for employees so there is a clear understanding of what is considered acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. When you are undertaking face-to-face training, it gives you the opportunity to directly engage with employees and answer questions as they arise.

Policies and procedures – having in-depth policies in relation to sexual harassment will clearly outline the business’s expectations in relation to the behaviour of employees inside and outside of the workplace, and the consequences for breaching the policy. Policies should also provide a clear outline of how to raise these matters through the appropriate channels, and procedures for how the business will investigate and address them.

If you have any questions about the information in this article, please contact HR Assured’s Telephone Advisory Service.