This isn’t a perfect, complete list, but we hope these suggested responses help you with your preparation. Your responses should be tailored to the organisation and individuals involved and capture your voice. This is a starting point.
Example #1: Our staff engagement scores are terrific and there is no indication of a sexual harassment problem here.
I am also very proud of our staff engagement scores which measure many aspects of working at our organisation. However, I don’t think we specifically ask whether our people have experienced sexual harassment or related inappropriate conduct at work, or whether they have witnessed it as a bystander.
Nationwide data from the Australian Human Rights Commission’s fifth national survey on sexual harassment in Australian workplaces shows that one in three people (33%) said they experienced sexual harassment at work in the last five years.
We need to treat sexual harassment and related inappropriate conduct risks as we would any other physical or psychosocial risk in the workplace.
Organisations already have a duty under work health and safety laws to eliminate or minimise psychosocial risks, so far as reasonably practicable, such as risks associated with sexual harassment and related inappropriate conduct. Work health and safety laws are enforceable by work health and safety regulators. In most States and Territories, board members and officers of organisations must exercise due diligence to ensure their organisation complies with its work health and safety duties. In Victoria, they are required to take ‘reasonable care’ to ensure that the organisation does not contravene its work health and safety duties.
We need to be proactive in demonstrating that we are managing this important issue, not wait until it appears as an issue on a staff engagement survey.
Example #2: We have a bullying and harassment policy, so that should be enough.
Like all our policies, regular reviews and updates are necessary, especially in response to legislative or regulatory changes.
The Respect@Work Council recommends having a stand-alone Sexual Harassment Policy, developed in consultation with workers. Alternatively, an organisation can update its existing Bullying and Harassment Policy to incorporate the measures it will take to eliminate sexual harassment. Ultimately, in determining the right approach for our organisation, the question to ask is – what will best prevent sexual harassment and related inappropriate behaviours?
We also need good data to understand the prevalence of harassment in our workplace. Research shows that sexual harassment is significantly underreported, so we need to ask the questions directly and collect our own data to identify trends and mitigate and eliminate risks.
A policy is a great and necessary first step, but it can’t be where we stop. We care deeply about our people and their safety and wellbeing, so we need to demonstrate this by taking the steps necessary to prevent sexual harassment and related inappropriate conduct.
Example #3: We have a support hotline which is well publicised and used, but we don’t get many calls about sexual harassment, so it mustn’t be an issue here.
It’s a good start to have a hotline, but we need to work together so that all our people feel safe to use it. The strong evidence in the Australian Human Rights Commission’s Respect@Work 2020 Sexual Harassment National Inquiry Report shows that sexual harassment is massively underreported which means the extent of the problem is not fully understood. It can be overt or insidious.
In fact, low reporting could suggest we don’t have a culture where it is safe enough to speak out and report toxic behaviour – yet. We can’t ignore the expert evidence nor the risks that this behaviour represents to the business and health and wellbeing of our people.
We need to approach this issue with the same mindset, processes, and tone from the top that we bring to other workplace injuries and serious misconduct.
Example #4: The men here think very highly of women and respect them. We can’t make them scared to have a joke or give a woman a compliment.
Having an appropriate joke and sexually harassing someone are vastly different things and if our employees don’t know the difference, we have a bigger problem.
We need to be proactive in eradicating disrespectful behaviours of all forms. That means innuendo, suggestive comments or jokes, casual sexism, intrusive questions about a person’s private life or physical appearance, inappropriate physical contact, as well as staring and leering, are not okay.
The new legal framework compels organisations to transition from ‘zero tolerance’ (a reactive, complaints-based approach’) to ‘zero harm’ (proactively taking steps to prevent sexual harassment and related inappropriate conduct). From 12 December 2023, the Australian Human Rights Commission will have expanded powers to enforce the positive duty and to investigate systemic unlawful conduct. The Australian Human Rights Commission may inquire into an organisation’s compliance with the positive duty if it ‘reasonably suspects’ that an organisation is not complying. The board and executive leadership are responsible for setting the organisation’s strategy for prevention and overseeing the execution and impact of that strategy.
It does not mean we will respond in the same way to every incident, and we need to be clear on this, otherwise it will prevent people from coming forward. We will always respond in a way that is appropriate in the circumstances. This is more than just a women’s issue. It is about all of our people feeling safe and respected at work and having a voice to speak.
A regular organisation-wide message, reinforced by regular reporting and a clear tone from the top, should be welcomed by all those in the organisation who respect their colleagues.
Example #5: I have been in this industry for decades and I have never seen sexual harassment, so it’s not an issue here.
A number of companies have been undertaking gender safety audits which are showing that the extent of sexual harassment, together with other forms of discriminatory behaviours, have been highly underreported. This underreporting often leads business leaders and board members to believe there are no issues, but often it’s happening right under their noses.
Results from cross-sectional gender and cultural safety audits can be extremely surprising – and often shocking. Importantly, audits which ask the right questions, enable targeted initiatives to be deployed to address workplace safety. For instance, it might demonstrate that the culturally diverse women in your organisation are more likely to experience sexual harassment or discrimination.
Let’s do the work, undertake a safety risk assessment, start to collate important data and make a commitment to ongoing reporting. It is important that organisations are undertaking audits that ask the right questions. These steps will contribute to our meeting our positive duty obligations and assist us to get a clear view of the realities of sexual harassment in our organisation.
Example #6: Sexual harassment complaints are within the remit of our HR team. If there is a big issue they will escalate it to us.
There is a now a positive duty on organisations to proactively prevent sexual harassment and related inappropriate conduct introduced by the Anti-Discrimination and Human Rights Legislation Amendment (Respect at Work) Act 2022. This is in addition to existing work health and safety laws to eliminate or minimise psychosocial risks, such as risk associated with sexual harassment and related inappropriate conduct, so far as reasonably practicable. In most States and Territories, board members and officers of organisations must exercise due diligence to ensure their organisation complies with this duty. In Victoria, they are required to take ‘reasonable care’ to ensure that the organisation does not contravene its work health and safety duties.
Given the organisation’s obligation to proactively prevent sexual harassment, we need to ensure that we have assessed the risks of inappropriate conduct occurring. Once the risks are clear, we need to have reasonable and proportionate measures in place to eliminate those risks.
Let’s include the HR team in this work and have them report back, but this doesn’t sit on HR’s shoulders alone.
Each of us has a responsibility to address this issue. We can’t delegate this important work to someone else. And as leaders we need to live our commitment to building a respectful, harassment-free workplace every day.
Example #7: This was an issue in the past in our industry, but we’ve come so far and things have changed. Do we really want to bring this up again?
It’s perfectly fine to look back on how far we’ve come – in fact, that’s a great way to gather momentum, but we are by no means there yet. If we were, we wouldn’t be seeing such alarming rates of sexual harassment still occurring in the workplace today.
One compelling reason is the introduction of the Anti-Discrimination and Human Rights Legislation Amendment (Respect at Work) Act 2022 which commenced on 13 December 2022, and which significantly changes the landscape for organisations.
Under this legislation, organisations have an obligation to proactively prevent sexual harassment and related inappropriate conduct in the workplace and be ready to demonstrate those proactive steps.
What we’ve done in the past is not enough anymore.
We need to learn from the past and celebrate progression, but we can’t bury our heads in the sand. We need to commit to leading in terms of cultural change and advancing gender equality. To do this, we must demonstrate and require accountability, ongoing focus, and empathetic and compassionate leadership, just like we do with other safety issues.