This document is part of the Prevention of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace resource.

The Equal Opportunity Act 2010 requires organisations to take proactive steps to eliminate sexual harassment from occurring in the workplace as far as reasonably practicable. To avoid vicarious liability for the conduct of their employees and agents, employers and principals are also required to take reasonable precautions to prevent sexual harassment.

Both the Australian Human Rights Commission[6] and the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission (VEOHRC)[7] have published guidelines, highlighting key steps in the prevention of sexual harassment in the workplace. These include:

Australian Human Rights Commission

  • Obtain high-level management support – In March 2018, the VSB released a Sexual Harassment Statement making it clear that sexual harassment has no place in the Victorian public sector. Signed by all Departmental Secretaries, the Victorian Public Sector Commissioner and the Chief Commissioner Victoria Police, this statement was circulated to all staff and provided to portfolio agencies for distribution.
  • Write and implement a workplace sexual harassment policy Building on the VSB statement on sexual harassment, the VPSC has issued a Sexual Harassment Model Policy (the Policy). The Policy promotes consistent practice across the Victorian public sector so that those who have experienced sexual harassment have the confidence to come forward.
  • Provide regular training for all staff – Effective implementation of sexual harassment process and procedures is supported by training for all staff. Training can be e-based or face-to face and could be provided as part of induction, as regular training or as refresher training (or ideally all of the above). Training should be tailored to suit organisational requirements but should seek to:
  • highlight relevant legislation;
  • reference the organisation’s sexual harassment policy;
  • reference bystander interventions; and
  • be available to all executives, managers and staff.

As part of training, organisations could provide employees with information on how to conduct themselves appropriately outside of the workplace in circumstances where there is a link to employment. It needs to be made clear that inappropriate conduct may result in a breach of the Codes of Conduct. Expected standards of behaviour should also be reinforced before a work-related social function, such as an office Christmas party.

  • Encourage appropriate conduct by senior staff – The binding Codes of Conduct set out the behaviours that are expected of all Victorian Public Sector staff. Senior staff and those with management responsibilities have a particular responsibility to model the behaviours and to lead and nurture workplaces that are grounded in respect and free from discrimination and harassment.
  • Create a positive workplace environment – Organisations have a range of policies and strategies in place that aim to support respectful workplaces. Developing and sustaining a culture of respect and equality is ongoing and requires regular consideration. While culture can be understood to be as simple as ‘the way we do things around here’, regular consideration of how an organisation is tracking is valuable. It allows an organisation to align its purpose to the public sector values and reinforce its workplace culture.

Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission

  • Have contact officers available to provide information – Organisations must have processes and procedures in place to deal with sexual harassment. This may include having contact officers who can provide information to staff about relevant policies, processes and procedures, and their options and responsibilities under those documents.
  • Promote bystander strategies – Organisations should acknowledge the role of bystander intervention and reporting when developing workplace tools. Encouraging bystanders to speak up when they hear or see inappropriate and sexist or sexual behaviour can be a powerful tool in building a positive and equitable workplace culture free from sexual harassment. Bystander training could also be considered. This would increase recognition of sexual harassment, sex discrimination, challenges and myths, and equip bystanders with a range of strategies to use if/when needed. Section 5.1 and 6.1.1 provide some suggested approaches for discussing sexual harassment.
  • Take all reasonable steps to eliminate gender inequality in the workplace – Organisations should consider the importance of eliminating the drivers of sexual harassment that occur in workplace culture, such as: adherence to gender stereotypes; sexual harassment as normalised behaviour; and inequality in the workplace.
  • Have a responsive, assertive grievance handling and complaints process – Organisations should plan how to deal with complaints in a way that is fair, transparent, timely and confidential, as far as possible. Organisations should ensure that clear and accessible complaints processes are in place and adhered to when complaints are made. Appropriate support and confidentiality for the complainant are essential features of the complaints process.

5.1 Calling out inappropriate behaviour

Improving the ability of all staff to call out inappropriate behaviour that they hear or see, promotes a positive workplace culture free of sexual harassment. Calling out poor behaviour in a respectful way also supports those who may be experiencing sexual harassment and reinforces other strategies to address sexual harassment in the workplace.

Any organisation looking to encourage staff to call out inappropriate behaviour, and thereby promote and implement bystander strategies, needs to ensure that staff are empowered to do so. Bystander action is supported by broader culture change activities. This includes training and education, so that staff know that they are protected from reprisal or victimisation should they speak up.

Responding to sexual harassment or knowing how to react when bearing witness to inappropriate behaviour can be challenging. It is recognised that in many instances people will not feel confident to respond. Should staff feel that they are able to respond, some suggested opening lines include:[8]

  • “I don’t think that joke was very funny.”
  • “For people who respect each other, we seem to be a bit off course today.”
  • “This seems like a good time to take a break and reflect upon what you just said/what just happened.”
  • “I am just taking a moment to be sure I heard/saw you right and to ask, did you really just say/do that?”
  • “Can we please pause for a moment? I just want to make sure we are being respectful.”

[6] Australian Human Rights Commission guideline source – Effectively preventing and responding to sexual harassment: A Code of Practice for Employers (2008) | Australian Human Rights Commission. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.humanrights.gov.au/our-work/sex-discrimination/publications/effectively-preventing-and-responding-sexual-harassment-0

[7] VEOHRC guideline source – Guideline: Sexual harassment – Complying with the Equal Opportunity Act 2010. [ONLINE] Available at: http://humanrightscommission.vic.gov.au/home/our-resources-and-publications/eoa-practice-guidelines/item/562-guideline-sexual-harassment-complying-with-the-equal-opportunity-act-2010

[8] Informed by Comebacks at Work, Kathleen Kelley Reardon at www.comebacksatwork.com