Identifying and acting on sexual harassment at work

Identifying and Acting on Sexual Harassment at Work By Amy Ahearn at

Have you ever had a colleague or even a boss that made you feel uncomfortable in some way? One that stood too close to you at the photocopier or got a bit too familiar at the office Christmas party? Perhaps a colleague that made lewd remarks in your presence, who later said he was “Just kidding, geez, lighten up!”

Sexual harassment in the workplace is, however, no laughing matter. Sexual harassment is illegal under the Sex Discrimination Act (1984), but the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has found that as many as 1 in 4 Australian women and 1 in 6 Australian men have experienced sexual harassment at work.

Identifying and Acting on Sexual Harassment at Work

Recently, there has been a social media campaign in which many people have shared their experiences of sexual harassment and assault, using the hashtag #MeToo. My social media feed was flooded with posts from many friends who have experienced some form of sexual harassment or assault. The idea behind #MeToo was to raise awareness of just how widespread this problem is and it certainly did that. Interestingly, many people took the opportunity to discuss what constitutes sexual harassment and assault; an important conversation to have.

In 2012, the AHRC undertook a national telephone survey to compile information about sexual harassment in the workplace. Some respondents who said they had never experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. Of those respondents, 18% then went on to describe instances that could actually have been counted as sexual harassment.

Sexual Harassment at Work

So, what is sexual harassment in the workplace?

Workplace sexual harassment can be perpetrated by colleagues, bosses and contractors in your place of employment.

From the AHRC website:

Sexual harassment 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.

There are so many behaviours that could constitute sexual harassment. The most obvious is unwanted touching, whether it’s a hand on your knee or someone touching your pregnant belly without permission. It could be someone deliberately brushing past and rubbing their body against you or something even more obvious, like touching your breast or bottom.

But sometimes there is no physical contact at all.

It could be leering or staring at a person or asking them intrusive personal questions. Sexual harassment can be texts, emails, comments or ‘jokes’ of a sexual nature. Maybe they’ve asked you on a date and keep doing so, despite you making it clear that you aren’t interested.

If their behaviour is intimidating, sexual in nature and is making you feel uncomfortable, you may be being sexually harassed.

What are your options?

If you are being sexually harassed in your workplace, you do not have to tolerate it. You have every right to feel safe and respected in your place of work.

There are several avenues open to you that you can take, depending on your exact circumstances.

  • Call it out.

Raise the issue with the person directly and tell them that their behaviour is not acceptable. Let them know that you would like it to stop immediately. This can be an effective way to deal with relatively minor transgressions, but only if you are comfortable doing so.

  • Tell someone.

It’s always wise to seek the support of a trusted colleague where possible. They can act as a support person for you if you decide to address the matter directly.

  • Speak to your manager.

If you have a good relationship with your manager and feel supported by them, they may be the ideal person to speak to. If they are the person you are being sexually harassed by, consider going above them if possible or speaking to someone in your company’s Human Resources/Personnel department.

  • Go to your union.

If your workplace has a union, the union delegate or representative can be an excellent source of advice and support. They may be able to refer you, through the union, to a legal advisor, provide you with information about the complaints process at your workplace and offer you support along the way, depending on your course of action.

  • Community legal centres.

Community legal centres and women’s legal centres can provide you with options and legal advice about your situation.

  • Lodge a complaint.

You can lodge a complaint with the Australian Human Rights Commission or other state or federal anti-discrimination boards.

Speak up.

You might not be experiencing sexual harassment, but you might see someone that is. Remember that the standard we walk past is the standard we are willing to accept.


Sexual Harassment at Work

It can be daunting, but if you see something inappropriate going on, taking action is an important step. It helps to dismantle the toxic culture in which people feel entitled to sexually harass others. It can be as simple as asking your colleague if they are okay. Listen to them, offer to help them make a complaint and ask how else you can support them.

Other ways to help, as a bystander:

  • Speak to a relevant manager to ensure your workplace’s sexual harassment policies are prominently displayed and easily accessed.
  • Organise (or speak to a relevant person about organising) sexual harassment training for staff in your workplace.
  • Report the sexual harassment at work that is occurring, with the permission of the person experiencing it.
Three dots
Footer CornerFooter background
Find out why Tell Me Baby is creating so much talk amongst parents. And as a member, you’ll earn Kmart, Coles & Target vouchers just for being active on the site.