It’s been over a year since the public release of the Respect@Work report, a national inquiry into sexual harassment in the workplace conducted by the Australian Human Rights Commission. The report’s findings were that sexual harassment in Australian workplaces is both prevalent and pervasive and in its current state, the legal and regulatory system is insufficient to effectively resolve these matters.
The report went on to highlight the costs to the economy and the negative long-term health and wellbeing implications for people (predominantly women) who experience such harassment. The report provided 55 recommendations that outlined how reform could be made and how moving forward, Australia responds to and prevents sexual harassment in the workplace. The recommendations were comprehensive, covering areas from primary prevention services, more support for survivors, and changes to legal and regulatory frameworks that would have changed workplace laws to ban sexual harassment and protect victims from astronomical legal bills.
Central to the recommendations was for the imposition of a ‘positive duty’ upon employers to take steps to prevent sexual harassment and discrimination from occurring in their organisations. As of last week, the Morrison government voted down attempts by the Labor and Greens parties to implement this key recommendation, meaning that the Sex Discrimination Act can only be invoked when someone makes a complaint. This maintains the responsibility of taking action against the perpetrators of sexual harassment and violence on victims and distances the obligation of preventative action from employers and organisations.
So what has changed?
The Sex Discrimination and Fair Work (Respect@Work) Amendment Bill 2021 now classifies sexual harassment as an offence for which employees can be terminated. This creates clarity that under the Act, harassing a person on the basis of their sex is prohibited.
The Bill also includes the recognition that sexual harassment, like bullying, is a workplace health and safety issue. This means that employees experiencing sexual harassment can apply for an order to stop sexual harassment through the Fair Work Commission.
The time period in which an employee can lodge a sexual harassment complaint with the Human Rights Commission has been increased from 6 to 24 months.
The definition of what constitutes work has been broadened to cover more vulnerable employees, including those working from home.
The Bill also closes a previous loophole that exempted public officials including judges, members of parliament, and their staff from being the subject of complaints under the Act.
What additional steps can an Employer take?
Despite the limited actions taken by the Government to action the recommendations from the Respect@Work report, organisations can demonstrate their commitment to building safe workplaces that are free from sexual harassment by proactively implementing some of the recommendations themselves. For an organisation, this might look like:
The development and facilitation of training for Board Members and Company Representatives to prevent sexual harassment and reinforce gender equality;
The implementation of workplace frameworks and policies to prevent and respond to sexual harassment that is victim-centred, adaptable, and designed to minimise harm to workers;
The creation of educational resources for younger people entering the workplace that advises them of their human rights and anti-discrimination legislation and how it applies to them at work in alignment with organisational policies and procedures;
Take steps to identify psychosocial risks in the workplace and initiate control measures to manage those risks. This might include the introduction of mandatory staff training that communicates the nature, drivers, and impacts of sexual harassment at work, and addresses the role of gender inequality and how it contributes to gender-based violence.
Time will tell whether the Morrison government is going to commit further to implementing the recommendations put forward by the Respect@Work report, but in the meantime, Australian businesses can step up and take actions to ensure their organisational culture is one of respect and care for women and all employees.
If your organisation needs assistance in developing strategies to prevent or address sexual harassment in the workplace, the team at Karen Ansen Consulting is able to provide you with solutions informed by HR and Legal best practices.