Harassment

Harassment is inappropriate and unreasonable behaviour which can involve physical, verbal and visual conduct including:

  • material that is displayed in the workplace, for example, on a noticeboard
  • material put on a computer, sent by email, SMS or put on a website, blog or on social networking
  • verbal abuse or derogatory comments
  • intrusive personal questions
  • offensive jokes or comments
  • offensive gestures
  • initiation ceremonies that involve unwelcome and unsafe behaviour

Examples of harassment

Racial harassment

It is unlawful to harass a person because of their race. Race includes colour, descent, ethnic or national origin, or nationality and may comprise two or more distinct races. Racial harassment may take many forms including threats, abuse, insults and taunts based on a person’s race or a characteristic belonging to, or generally believed to belong to, a particular race.

Gendered violence

Gendered violence at work is any behaviour, directed at a person or that affects a person, because of their sex, gender or sexual orientation, or because they do not adhere to socially prescribed gender roles, that creates a risk to health and safety.

This can include sexual harassment and assault.

Sexual harassment

Sexual harassment includes any unwelcome or inappropriate behaviour of a sexual nature, where a reasonable person, having regard to all the circumstances, would expect the person being harassed to be offended, humiliated or intimidated. Some forms of sexual harassment are also a criminal offence. It can include:

  • unwelcome touching, hugging, cornering or kissing 
  • inappropriate staring or leering 
  • suggestive comments or jokes 
  • using suggestive or sexualised nicknames for co-workers 
  • sexually explicit pictures, posters or gifts 
  • circulating sexually explicit material 
  • persistent unwanted invitations to go out on dates 
  • requests or pressure for sex 
  • intrusive questions or comments about a person’s private life or body 
  • unnecessary familiarity, such as deliberately brushing up against a person 
  • insults or taunts based on sex 
  • sexual gestures or indecent exposure 
  • following, watching or loitering nearby another person 
  • sexually explicit or indecent emails, phone calls, text messages or online interactions 
  • repeated or inappropriate advances online 
  • threatening to share intimate images or film without consent.

The Respect@Work: Sexual Harassment National Inquiry Report published by the Australian Human Rights Commission in 2020 identified trends in relation to the prevalence of sexual harassment in Australian workplaces; it is estimated that around one third of people reported exposure to workplace sexual harassment in the previous five years.

The Anti-Discrimination and Human Rights Legislation Amendment (Respect at Work) Act 2022 (Cth) amended the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth), introducing a positive duty on PCBUs to eliminate:

  • workplace sexual harassment, sex discrimination and sex-based harassment;
  • conduct that amounts to subjecting a person to a hostile workplace environment on the ground of sex; 
  • and, certain acts of victimisation.

New regulatory powers have been conferred on the Australian Human Rights Commission to investigate and enforce compliance with the positive duty. The Commission’s compliance powers will commence in December 2023. 

Who is at risk?

Everyone at a workplace is potentially at risk of being subjected to inappropriate or unreasonable behaviour. However, some groups may be more at risk and these can include:

  • young workers
  • lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer and asexual (LGBTIQA+) workers
  • Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander workers
  • workers with a disability
  • culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) workers
  • migrant workers or workers holding temporary visas
  • people in insecure working arrangements.

What are the effects?

Harassment can create a hostile work environment that may impact upon others in the workplace and can become a hazard under the WHS Act when it has the potential to create a risk to health and safety.

The severity of the impact of harassment can vary lead to a number of significant physical and psychological outcomes for affected people, including: 

  • psychological injuries including depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) 
  • physiological health affects (e.g. sleep, appetite, muscular tension) 
  • feelings of isolation, social isolation or family dislocation 
  • loss of confidence and withdrawal 
  • suicidal thoughts.

Where harassment involves physical conduct perpetrated by a client or member of the public, see the Code of practice: Violence and aggression at work for more information. 

WHS duties

Everyone in the workplace has a duty to manage hazards and risks to worker physical and psychological health and safety. These duties are set out in the WHS Act. A workplace where mental health and wellbeing is a priority benefits everyone.

For businesses/PCBU's/mine operators

A PCBU has the primary duty of care under the WHS Act to ensure that workers and other people are not exposed to health and safety risks arising from work carried out.  This duty includes: 

  • providing and maintaining a work environment that is without risks to health and safety
  • providing and maintaining safe systems of work
  • monitoring the health and safety of workers and the conditions at the workplace to ensure that work related illnesses and injuries are prevented
  • providing appropriate information, instruction, training or supervision to workers and other persons at the workplace to allow work to be carried out safely.

Workers, including managers and supervisors, should be aware of their roles in relation to preventing and responding to inappropriate or unreasonable workplace behaviour and have the appropriate skills to take action where necessary.

Training should cover:

  • awareness of the impact certain behaviours can have on others
  • the work health and safety duties and responsibilities relating to workplace behaviour
  • measures used to prevent inappropriate or unreasonable behaviour from occurring
  • how individuals can respond to inappropriate or unreasonable behaviour
  • how to report inappropriate or unreasonable behaviour
  • how reports will be responded to, including timeframes.

For workers

As a worker, you must take reasonable care for your own health and safety and not adversely affect the health and safety of others. You must comply with reasonable instructions and cooperate with reasonable health and safety policies or procedures.

See Workers and others duties for more information.

If you are sexually harassed at work there are a number of things you can do, on your own, or with help from others. For example:

  • Remove yourself from the situation by logging off your device, hanging up the phone, or walking away.
  • Call the police on 000 if you feel unsafe. You can also call the 24/7 Police Assistance Line on 131 444 to report a crime.
  • Ask for help from your co-workers, manager, friends, or family members.
  • Seek professional help from a counselling service or helpline.
  • Keep a record of what happened, when and where it happened, who was involved and anything else you think may be important, in case you wish to make a complaint or report (now or at a later date). If the harassment occurred on the phone or social media, consider taking screenshots as evidence of the harassment.
  • Ask for advice about your workplace rights: There are government and non-government organisations that can provide you with free advice about workplace sexual harassment, including your options for making a complaint. For more information, see ‘Services that can provide advice.
  • Make an internal complaint or report to management or human resources (as outlined in your workplace’s relevant policy or procedure, if they have one).
  • Make a complaint or report to a government agency: There are independent organisations that can accept complaints of workplace sexual harassment, such as the Australian Human Rights Commission or your state or territory’s human rights/anti-discrimination agency. For more information see ‘Reporting workplace sexual harassment’.
  • Apply for a ‘stop sexual harassment’ order from the Fair Work Commission if you think the workplace harassment is likely to continue and you are still in the same workplace. The Commission can order that the sexual harassment at work stop, an apology be made or that support or training in the workplace is provided.

See Respect@Work for more information.

Manage risks

It is a requirement under the WHS legislation to manage risks to worker health and safety, including psychological health and safety. See the Code of practice: Workplace behaviour  and the Code of practice: Psychosocial hazards in the workplace for guidance.

Further support

Department of Energy, Mines, Industry Regulation and Safety

Safe Work Australia

Respect @ Work

Australian Human Rights Commission

Department of Health

Western Australia Police

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