Sexual harassment in the workplace

Sexual harassment is against the law under the Equal Opportunity Act 2010.

Sexual harassment is unwelcome sexual behaviour, which could be expected to make a person feel offended, humiliated or intimidated. It can be physical, verbal or written.

Sexual harassment is not consensual interaction, flirtation or friendship. Sexual harassment is not behaviour that is mutually agreed upon.

Sexual harassment is covered in the workplace when it happens:

  • at work
  • at work-related events or where people are carrying out work-related functions
  • between people sharing the same workplace

A single incident is enough to constitute sexual harassment – it doesn’t have to be repeated.

Men experience sexual harassment but it disproportionately affects women, especially in the workplace. (The Australian Human Rights Commission reported that 1 in 5 women experience sexual harassment in the workplace at some time.)

Read more on our sexual harassment FAQs page

Responding to harassment

All incidents of sexual harassment – no matter how large or small or who is involved – require employers or managers to respond quickly and appropriately. Just because someone does not object to inappropriate behaviour in the workplace at the time, it does not mean that they are consenting to the behaviour.

The law

Sexual harassment is against the law under the Equal Opportunity Act.

Some types of sexual harassment may also be offences under criminal law. These include indecent exposure, stalking, sexual assault and obscene or threatening communications, such as phone calls, letters, emails, text messages and posts on social networking sites.

Employers should consider reporting criminal offences to the police.

More information on sexual harassment and the law is available on our Sexual harassment page.

Liability

While the person who sexually harasses someone else is liable for their own behaviour, employers can also be held vicariously liable for acts of sexual harassment by their employees or agents. 

Sexual harassment can involve employees, managers, contractors, agents, volunteers, clients, customers and others connected with or attending a workplace. It can happen at work, at work-related events or between colleagues outside the work environment.

A common workplace

A workplace covers any place that a person attends for the purpose of carrying out their work or trade. They do not need to be an employer or employee of the workplace.

For example, Miki is contracted by an employment agency to fill a short-term reception role with an IT company. During her two-week placement she is sexually harassed by one of the company’s staff. Although not an employee of the IT company, Miki is still covered by the law.

Industrial organisations

Employees or members of industrial organisations must not sexually harass other employees or members of the organisation, or people seeking to become a member.

For example, Cheng is a union member and workplace representative for his union. At a union meeting he is sexually harassed by another member. Cheng is covered by the law.

Qualifying bodies

Employees or members of a qualifying body, such as a professional association, must not sexually harass other employees or members, or people seeking action on an occupational qualification.

For example, Justine is a dental hygienist and a member of a professional association. On a professional development course run by the association she is sexually harassed by one of its employees. Justine is covered by the law.

A partnership

A partner in a firm must not sexually harass another partner or anyone seeking to become a partner at that firm.

For example, Louise is up for partnership at a law firm when he is sexually harassed by one of its senior partners. Louise is covered by the law.

Volunteers and unpaid workers

Volunteers and unpaid workers have the same rights and responsibilities in relation to sexual harassment as paid staff. See Volunteers and equal opportunity.

Contact the commission for more information and resources

Under the Equal Opportunity Act employers have a positive duty to prevent sexual harassment from happening, as far as possible.

This might include:

  • making sure you have a sexual harassment policy for staff and a complaints procedure in place
  • ensuring staff have adequate training on these policies and procedures – they need to have faith that they are taken seriously and that action will be taken
  • reviewing your policies to make sure they are up to date and accessible
  • actively encouraging reporting in the workplace, for example by giving managers credit for taking action to encourage reporting and modelling appropriate behaviour.
  • promoting standards of behaviour through discussion, leadership and modelling.
  • having staff Contact Officers who can provide confidential information about rights and your complaints procedures.

For more information read our Guideline on Sexual harassment > Complying with the Equal Opportunity Act 2010.

You can also contact us for more information about the positive duty, to discuss your organisation’s equal opportunity plans or to find out about other resources and training.

Make a complaint to the Commission

If you think you have been discriminated againstsexually harassedvictimised or vilified, contact us and talk about your concerns. Our dispute resolution service is free and confidential. We can send you information about the complaint process and if we can’t help you we will try to refer you to someone who can.

To make a complaint:

Find out more about making a complaint.

A single incident is enough to constitute sexual harassment – it doesn’t have to be repeated.

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