WARNING: THIS WEBSITE MENTIONS SEXUAL HARASSMENT. IF YOU ARE TRIGGERED BY ANY OF THIS CONTENT AND ARE LOOKING FOR SUPPORT, CLICK HERE

WARNING: THIS WEBSITE MENTIONS SEXUAL HARASSMENT. IF YOU ARE TRIGGERED BY ANY OF THIS CONTENT AND ARE LOOKING FOR SUPPORT, CLICK HERE

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CEW member and Non-Executive Director

December 2021

For me being a board director is all about how you manage to put things on the agenda and drill down deeper if you think the information being provided is superficial – whether it is sustainability, climate, animal welfare, or sexual harassment.

Here are some of the things that have helped me to do that in the past:

Provide the pre-think

You can often raise the issue by citing an article, sharing conference notes or observations from another organisation. This can be done beforehand by email to get the issue on the agenda and give people time to digest it. This avoids the deafening silence that can sometimes occur in a board meeting if the issue is raised for the first time in the room.

Share the real stories

When data on sexual harassment comes into a board meeting, I have found it incredibly effective to ask for verbatim reports or case studies [with care to ensure appropriate confidentiality is upheld]. In one board that I sit on, when we report on safety, there is a confidential page for every harm incident, capturing the resolution and consequence.

Knowing the stories around the numbers creates more empathy and concern, and puts incidences into perspective. Reporting on averages alone can be deceiving – ask for the details, including how extreme the cases are.

Test your hypotheses

Another thing I’ve seen done to great effect is correlating data to develop lead indicators and test hypotheses about why incidents are occurring where they are.

For example, in one organisation the hypothesis was that an issue occurred due to the inexperience of a manager, when in fact the problem was the physical environment.

It can also be useful to look at your employee engagement surveys to see if you’re asking the right questions. Sometimes the problems lie in the questions that aren’t being asked.

Enlist support

It’s a good idea to enlist support from other parts of the business. Sexual harassment prevention usually sits with the audit and risk committee, but including other committees, such as your safety or people and culture teams, can be a good way to ensure diversity of thought.

I also suggest that you tap into the interest of your colleagues. It’s often more effective to have two or three voices asking for information or calling for change, so encourage like-minded board members to back you up.

Build a sense of urgency

While I haven’t experienced major pushback when I have raised sexual harassment, I have faced a lack of urgency.

You need to keep pushing and judge appropriate timings to raise issues and share appropriate information.

CEW has developed a range of resources to help leaders bring about real change in their organisations, and to track and eliminate sexual harassment.

We need to set the tone and lead from the top. With this in mind, here is an example of some things we should never say or accept from others:

  • A bullying and harassment policy should be enough to deal with sexual harassment.
  • We have low report rates of sexual harassment, so it’s not a problem at this organisation.
  • We have a reporting hotline which is well publicised, but we don’t get many calls about sexual harassment, so it’s not an issue here.
  • I have been in this industry for decades and I have never seen it, so it mustn’t be happening.
  • That’s the remit of our HR team. If there was ever a big issue, they would escalate it to us.
  • Our staff engagement scores are terrific and there is no indication of there being a sexual harassment problem here. That means we’re doing enough.


Most cultural issues aren’t hiding in plain sight. Often it’s the things that aren’t being talked about that we need to be concerned about. Research tells us that sexual harassment is common and that it’s significantly under reported. We need to be proactive to prevent sexual harassment, and not wait for a complaint before we act.

We need to ensure our people feel safe to come forward and report instances of sexual harassment or discrimination in the workplace. The only way they’ll do this is if they can see that leadership takes this issue seriously.

Can I suggest we create a board paper for the next meeting to outline how we plan to do this?

We take the health and wellbeing of our people very seriously. We work hard to improve our safety outcomes and reduce injuries, and overall we do a good job preventing physical harm to our people.

As we have seen in many other organisations, sexual harassment is more prevalent than a lot of people think. This represents a real risk to keeping people safe in the workplace, and to our people’s wellbeing and productivity.

It can also cause significant damage to our reputation, our brand as an employer of choice, lost business, and to our corporate standing.

We need to make it crystal clear to everyone in the organisation that we have zero tolerance for sexual harassment. Our objective is to prevent it. We need to ensure all our systems, processes and practices enforce this commitment.

We need to treat sexual harassment risks as we would any other physical or psychological risk in the workplace. We already have existing systems and processes in place for identifying and mitigating workplace health and safety risks and hazards, and for defining our desired culture.

We need to embed these into our sexual harassment response frameworks, reporting practices and organisational culture so sexual harassment is eradicated.

We can’t afford to wait on this; we need to act urgently.

Sexual harassment is any unwelcome sexual advance, request for sexual favours or other conduct of a sexual nature. It’s not only a human rights issue, which is unlawful under the Sex Discrimination Act, but also a workplace health and safety (WHS) risk which can cause significant psychological, physical, reputational and financial harm.

Existing systems and processes for managing WHS risks and hazards should be used to eliminate the risks and control the likelihood of sexual harassment occurring in the workplace.

Board members and senior executives have a duty to address this. Everyone deserves to work in a safe, respectful and inclusive environment. Respect is everyone’s business.

Sexual harassment is any unwelcome sexual advance, request for sexual favours or other conduct of a sexual nature. It’s not only a human rights issue, which is unlawful under the Sex Discrimination Act, but also a workplace health and safety (WHS) risk which can cause significant psychological, physical, reputational and financial harm.

Existing systems and processes for managing WHS risks and hazards should be used to eliminate the risks and control the likelihood of sexual harassment occurring in the workplace.

Board members and senior executives have a duty to address this. Everyone deserves to work in a safe, respectful and inclusive environment. Respect is everyone’s business.