Addressing the risks of workplace sexual harassment
Solicitor Daria McLachlan reports sexual harassment has become a worldwide headline in the last 12 months. Allegations have been rife—from Hollywood to politics, backyards to musical theatre productions. It even has its own hashtag!
Unsurprising a national survey conducted by the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) revealed that 25% of women and 16% of men aged 15 years and older have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace.
Sexual harassment generally has an oppressive effect on victims and poses a genuine risk to work health and safety. Community standards are changing and the Australian community has a heightened appreciation for the impact of sexual harassment on victims, as was recognised by the judiciary in Richardson v Oracle Corporation Australia Pty Limited  FCA 102.
Employers must adapt to changing standards and adopt appropriate control measures to minimise risks associated with sexual harassment. Failing to appropriately address sexual harassment exposes employers to a range of risks, including diminished productivity, poor workplace culture, legal liability (compensation and civil penalties), reputational harm, and health and safety breaches.
Organisations should review their approach to risk in this area. Behaviours such as hugs, massages, placing arms around shoulders, and the display of pornographic posters can all be actionable.
It is recommended employers follow the AHRC publication Effectively preventing and responding to sexual harassment: A Code of Practice for Employers for a best practice approach. It is unlikely an employer will be held liable in circumstances where they have complied with the Code.