Starting the important conversations​

The first step in preventing sexual harassment in the workplace is starting the conversation.

It’s at this point that you could face pushback or struggle to get your executives or board to give the issue the attention it deserves. Alternatively, with recent media and government attention on the issue, you may receive interest from leaders who are keen to understand how they can help – sometimes for the first time.

Firstly, it’s not about debating the ‘what’. All leaders and board members should understand what constitutes sexual harassment, their responsibilities and why it’s important that those in power are the driving force behind these conversations.

Instead the conversation needs to focus on the ‘how’ – how to take meaningful action as board members and executive leaders.

CEW has built a toolkit to help in preparation for these important conversations.

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Getting it on the agendaGetting it on the agendaGetting it on the agendaGetting it on the agendaGetting it on the agenda

Starting the important conversations

The first step in preventing sexual harassment in the workplace is starting the conversation.

It’s at this point that you could face pushback or struggle to get your executives or board to give the issue the attention it deserves. Alternatively, with recent media and government attention on the issue, you may receive interest from leaders who are keen to understand how they can help – sometimes for the first time.

Firstly, it’s not about debating the ‘what’. All leaders and board members should understand what constitutes sexual harassment, their responsibilities and why it’s important that those in power are the driving force behind these conversations.

Instead the conversation needs to focus on the ‘how’ – how to take meaningful action as board members and executive leaders.

CEW has built a toolkit to help in preparation for these important conversations.

What’s the motivation?

Think about your organisation and industry, or a particular leader, to identify the best potential motivator for taking action. For some, it’s profit and profitability. For others, it’s their reputation with customers. For certain organisations, it will be about being seen as an employer of choice, whereas for others it will be driven from a health and safety or legal compliance standpoint.

Whatever the driving motivation is, all leaders must create safe workplaces where everyone can bring their whole selves to work.

An example conversation script to help you get started

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Not sure how to get the conversation rolling?

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If your board and senior management team are on board at this stage, next you need to demonstrate the role they play as visible and influential voices in the workplace.

This is about demonstrating a dedication to the cause from the top down.

Practice a tough conversation

CEW is about women leaders enabling women leaders. We’re matching up CEW members to practice and workshop conversations about eliminating sexual harassment in their workplaces.

We’re offering these introductions to CEW members. We also encourage other female leaders to practice these conversations with women and allies in their own networks.

Fill in the form below to be matched with fellow a CEW member, and we will be in touch via email.




    Quick facts, stats and conversation starters

    Sometimes you need some compelling statistics or facts to bolster your argument and get others to sit up and listen. 

    We have listed a few facts and statistics that you can include in your initial conversations with other executives and board members.

    Sources: Sexual harassment demographic statistics: The Australian Human Rights Commission’s national survey on sexual harassment in Australian workplaces (2018). Economic impacts: Deloitte Access Economics (March, 2019).

    Spread the word

    Hold your board and your leadership team to account by sharing your intentions with your employees and relevant stakeholders. This email template is designed to help you clearly articulate your commitment as a leader to eradicate sexual harassment by adding your own voice to the example provided. It is built on a recent message sent by a CEW member and experienced Chair.

    Spread the word

    Hold your board and leadership team to account by sharing your intentions with your employees and relevant stakeholders. This email template is designed to help you clearly articulate your commitment as a leader to eradicate sexual harassment by adding your own voice to the example provided. It is based on a recent message sent by a CEW member and experienced Chair.

    Spread the word

    Hold your board and leadership team to account by sharing your intentions with your employees and relevant stakeholders. This email template is designed to help you clearly articulate your commitment as a leader to eradicate sexual harassment by adding your own voice to the example provided. It is based on a recent message sent by a CEW member and experienced Chair.

    Managing pushback

    In order to have effective conversations about sexual harassment with employees, leaders and board members, you need to be prepared to respond to any pushback.

    It’s not uncommon for some of the responses you receive when raising the issue of sexual harassment at work to surprise or exasperate you. Often it’s only after the pushback has occurred that you think of a compelling response and wish you’d said something earlier.

    In order to avoid pushback derailing the conversation, or causing the issue to fall off the table entirely, you can arm yourself with some responses.

    Prepare your Q&As

    When talking about sexual harassment in the workplace, you may face some challenging questions from employees or other important stakeholders. Here are some common questions and a framework for responses.

    Potential follow up questions:
    What policies are in place to prevent and address workplace sexual harassment?
    Are these regularly reviewed by the board as part of the governance calendar?
    • The safety and wellbeing of our employees is our highest priority. We are committed to providing a safe and inclusive work environment for all employees.
    • We have a zero-tolerance approach to harassment, bullying or intimidation. All reports of inappropriate behaviour are investigated thoroughly and necessary actions are taken.
    • Harassment of any kind is considered serious misconduct and may be grounds for dismissal.
    • We have a comprehensive list of policies in place, including: List your relevant Codes of Conduct, reporting protocols, whistleblower policies, support frameworks [including EAP] and other relevant measures.
    • Regular reports on all aspects of workplace safety, including sexual harassment, are provided to the board, audit and risk committee/other committees.
    • Serious matters are elevated to the board immediately.
    Potential follow up question:
    And if so, are the board’s expectations around preventing sexual harassment clearly communicated to all employees and stakeholders?
    • As board members and senior executives, we are fully aware of the risks of sexual harassment in our organisation, and the underlying contributing factors (for example, you could highlight the diversity in your workplace and leadership team or lack thereof ).
    • Our organisation is taking all necessary measures to tackle any instances of sexual harassment in our workplaces to ensure they are safe, respectful and inclusive for everyone.
    • Refer to board communication on safety and diversity to offer details specific to your organisation.
    • Send out an email to all employees signalling your intention to address sexual harassment in the workplace. See our suggested email template here.
    • The safety and wellbeing of our employees is our highest priority, and we are committed to providing a safe and inclusive work environment for all our team members.
    • We have a strong culture built on (list specific values and key aspects of your culture).
    • Describe specific measures in place, such as a reporting hotline, training, reporting dashboards, gender quotas for boards/executive roles etc.
    • We want matters to be reported so we can act on them and ensure the behaviour is not repeated.
    • We are open to offering training to our managers to ensure they’re well equipped to have these conversations and to give employees peace of mind that their report will be handled professionally and respectfully.[Recommendation 45 of the [email protected] report outlines what this training should entail].
    • Describe specific measures in place to allow reporting, such as confidentiality and privacy protections in place, investigation processes and follow up support that’s available.
    Potential follow up question:
    Is this being discussed enough at a board level?
    • Our board recognises the importance of diversity – describe the composition of the board which ideally demonstrates this diversity, or outline intentions to improve and outline the benchmark you’re aiming to achieve – i.e. “Over the next three years, we’re aiming to increase female representation on our board by X%.”

    • We review senior leaders’ performance regularly against our shared commitment to upholding all aspects of our culture and values.

    • Our conversations are firmly anchored around culture, values and behaviour. Any instances that demonstrate that these are not being adhered to are discussed openly and acted upon.

    Potential follow up questions:
    Are leaders measured against their commitment to eliminating sexual harassment, and demonstrating an ethical and respectful management style?
    Are these measures considered in performance reviews and remuneration?
    • Our board recognises the importance of diversity in leadership and the critical role this plays in ensuring a respectful and inclusive culture. Describe the composition of the leadership team which ideally demonstrates this diversity, or outline intentions to improve, including the benchmark you’re aiming for.

    • We review senior leaders’ performance regularly against our shared commitment to upholding all aspects of our culture and values.

    • Performance reviews and remuneration outcomes reflect leaders’ commitment to a range of measures, including their role in supporting a strong culture which is respectful and inclusive for all.

    • We hold ourselves publicly accountable by talking about our approach to sexual harassment in our external reporting (including in annual reports and investor presentations).

    Potential follow up questions:
    Does the board receive reports on sexual harassment?
    Are there any trends/systemic issues evident in the reporting?
    • Regular reports on all aspects of workplace safety, including sexual harassment, are provided to the board, audit and risk committee/other committees.

    • Serious matters, such as allegations of sexual harassment, are elevated to the board immediately.

    • To date we are/are not seeing trends in the reporting of sexual harassment. (If you are, be transparent with the details). Reports are reviewed in detail and any systemic issues that arise are closely examined. (You can get a clear view on any important trends by implementing a robust reporting process. Click here to see some example reporting dashboards).

    Potential follow up questions:
    Does the board understand the prevalence of sexual harassment and how it relates to the organisation’s culture?
    Do staff surveys ask about culture perceptions and sexual harassment?
    • Regular reports of on all aspects of workplace safety, including sexual harassment, are provided to the board, audit and risk committee/other committees.

    • To date we are/are not seeing any trends in the reporting of sexual harassment. Reports are reviewed in detail and any systemic issues that arise are closely examined.

    • Annual/biannual staff surveys address all aspects of culture, including sexual harassment, and any trends in reporting are elevated for discussion by the leadership team and the board.

    • Risk management processes form part of the organisation’s risk governance framework and this extends to the identification of sexual harassment and all other matters of workplace safety.
    Potential follow up questions:
    Do the organisation’s arrangements for reporting of sexual harassment balance confidentiality with transparency?
    Are non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) required. If so, does the board understand the extent to which they are used?
    • Confidentiality during investigations is paramount.

    • NDAs can prevent transparent reporting and discussion on sexual harassment as part of an organisation’s governance and can perpetuate a culture of silence.

    • The Champions of Change Coalition has developed new principles on confidentiality and transparency – you can read them here. Giving people who have experienced sexual harassment a voice, choice and taking a case-by-case approach is paramount.

    Potential follow up question:
    Have directors and staff at all levels received training about sexual harassment?
    • Describe your training programs and resources available to staff or signal your intention to introduce more comprehensive measures (be detailed and ensure you stick to any promises made).

    • Describe your organisation’s specific values and key aspects of culture.

    • Our annual/biannual staff surveys address all aspects of culture, including respect and safety, and any trends in reporting are elevated for discussion by the leadership team and the board.

    Potential follow up question:
    Are adequate measures in place to promote gender diversity across the organisation, including in leadership roles?
    • We promote diversity across all levels of our organisation and aim to reflect the gender and broader diversity represented by our community.

    • List relevant percentages of women in leadership roles and outline any future intentions to improve.

    • List other specific things that the organisation does to promote equal opportunities, such as gender targets, taking a gender lens to recruitment and succession planning or mentorship/professional development opportunities for women.