Sexual harassment continues to be a pressing issue in Australian workplaces, prompting the Federal Government to amend the Sex Discrimination Act in late 2022. These changes impose a new ‘positive duty’ on all employers, requiring them to take reasonable steps to eliminate sexual harassment, sex-based harassment, and hostile environments in the workplace.
All workplaces must meet legal requirements and foster a culture of respect and dignity. In this article, we will delve into the risk management approach for addressing sexual harassment, guided by the principles of Safe Work Australia.
Creating a workplace that is free from harassment starts with strong leadership. Senior leaders who commit publicly to eliminating sexual harassment via a statement or video shared with all employees perform better. Workplaces that lead the agenda to remove sexual harassment actively capture sexual harassment data and report insights to the board as a standing agenda. All leaders should role-model appropriate behaviours and call out inappropriate behaviours of their peers or staff. This serves as a starting point in the risk management journey, helping set the workplace’s tone.
Risk Management Approach for Sexual Harassment
Step 1: Identify Hazards
To determine the risk of sexual harassment in your workplace:
- Talk to workers and Health and Safety Representatives (HSRs) about concerns
- Provide a simple and anonymous system for workers to report inappropriate behaviours
- Use anonymous surveys to gauge the sentiment
- Physically inspect workplaces for potential hazards
- Examine online interactions and security settings
- Assess customer and client interactions
- Review and proactively deal with complaints, absenteeism rates, and staff turnover
Step 2: Assess the Risks
Once you’ve identified potential hazards, evaluate them based on the following:
- Duration: How long are workers exposed to the risk?
- Frequency: How often does exposure occur?
- Severity: How severe is the potential harm?
Pay attention to red flags such as low worker diversity, power imbalances, or a culture that tolerates harassment.
Step 3: Controlling Risks
After completing the risk assessment, devise control measures considering:
- The likelihood and severity of exposure
- Interaction with other psychosocial hazards
- Job demands and task design
- Work systems and workplace support
- Workplace design and environmental conditions
- The information, training and supervision that is provided to workers
- The culture that encourages people to speak up if they have concerns about inappropriate behaviours
Consult with workers and Health and Safety Representatives to identify multiple, reliable, and adequate controls.
Step 4: Monitor and Review Control Measures
Regularly assess the effectiveness of your control measures. Changes or replacements should be made if they are not working as planned. Reviews are essential when:
- The measure does not adequately control risks
- There are new or different risks due to workplace changes
- New hazards are identified
- Consultation indicates a review is needed
- A Health and Safety Representative requests a review for a valid reason
Taking a proactive approach to risk management for sexual harassment is not just a legal obligation but a moral one. Strong leaders don’t step over issues. They pay attention to what’s important and demonstrate action. Given the severe impact that such incidents can have on the mental and emotional wellbeing of employees and the overall health of the workplace, the onus is on HR and health and safety professionals to lead the way.
By adhering to a comprehensive risk management strategy, engaging in regular consultation, and persistently reviewing control measures, workplaces can create a workplace compliant with legislation and safe, respectful, and inclusive for everyone.
If you want support addressing sexual harassment or training staff and leaders, speak with AP Psychology & Consulting Services.