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Sexual harassment

Sexual harassment is unwelcome sexual behaviour that could make a person feel offended, humiliated or intimidated. It can be a symptom of gender inequality and most often – but not always – affects women. Sexual harassment can be a single incident or repeated behaviour; a suggestive comment or an offensive joke. It may happen in the office, a work party or at school. It doesn’t matter what the intention is, sexual harassment is against the law.

Confident business owner standing at the entrance of a restaurant

What is sexual harassment?

The law defines sexual harassment as unwelcome sexual behaviour that causes a person to feel offended, humiliated or intimidated, where a reasonable person could have anticipated that reaction in the circumstances.

Sexual harassment includes:

  • an unwelcome sexual advance
  • an unwelcome request for sexual favours
  • any other unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature.

Sexual harassment can be physical, verbal or written. Examples include:

  • comments about someone’s private life or the way they look
  • sexually suggestive behaviour, such as leering or staring
  • brushing up against someone, touching, fondling or hugging
  • sexually suggestive comments or jokes
  • displaying offensive images or objects
  • repeated requests to go out
  • requests for sex
  • sexually explicit emails, text messages or posts on social media
  • sexual assault
  • suggestive behaviour.

What if it was just a joke?

Sometimes people accused of sexual harassment say they were only joking. But jokes can still be insulting, threatening and unwelcome.

It doesn’t matter what the intention is: sexual harassment is against the law.

In the workplace, training can help staff and colleagues understand the difference between a harmless joke and sexual harassment.

How does the law protect me?

The Equal Opportunity Act 2010 makes sexual harassment against the law in certain areas of public life, including:

  • at work
  • at school
  • getting or using services
  • renting or buying a house
  • in shops.

The Commission can help resolve complaints of sexual harassment.

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

Sexual harassment at work

The large majority of sexual harassment complaints that come to us are work related (80% in 2020-21).  Women are also more likely to experience sexual harassment than men (85 per cent of Australian women have been sexually harassed at work at some point in their lives.)

While a person who sexually harasses someone else is primarily responsible for their own behaviour, in some cases employers can also be held responsible.

Under the Equal Opportunity Act, employers have a positive duty to provide a safe workplace and to take all reasonable steps to prevent sexual harassment at work. This means that positive action should be taken to prevent these behaviours – regardless of whether someone has made a complaint.

The positive duty applies to employers of all sizes, regardless of whether they are a major company or a small cafe, and covers all types of workers:

  • full-time, part-time and casual employees
  • agents and contract workers
  • trainees and apprentices
  • volunteers and unpaid workers.

It applies to all stages of employment, including:

  • recruitment and advertising for jobs
  • returning to work after injury, illness or pregnancy
  • dismissal and retrenchment.

Action employers can take to prevent sexual harassment:

  • Making sure they have a sexual harassment policy for staff and a complaints procedure in place.
  • Ensuring staff have adequate training on sexual harassment and understand the policies and procedures in place. Workers need to have faith that they are taken seriously, and that action will be taken.
  • Regularly identifying and assessing risk factors for sexual harassment, including by seeking feedback from workers.
  • Taking action to address risk regularly, including indicators of workplace gender inequality.
  • Reviewing 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 respectful behaviour through discussion, leadership and modelling.
  • Having equal opportunity contact officers among staff who can provide confidential information about rights and the organisation’s complaints procedures.
  • Regularly collecting and assessing reporting and complaints (and other relevant) data for trends, patterns and lessons to drive continuous improvement.

Essential resources to help workplaces tackle sexual harassment

To help employers fulfil the positive duty, the Commission has released a new guideline and an interactive online response tool focused on creating safer, more respectful workplaces.

Guideline: Preventing and responding to workplace sexual harassment outlines six minimum standards that employers must meet to comply with their positive duty to eliminate sexual harassment. It provides essential information and recommendations for small, medium and large organisations, applying to diverse workplace settings and across a range of sectors and industries.

The new edition of the guideline and its accompanying quick guide are paired with an innovative online Sexual harassment support and response tool. This free and confidential interactive chat tool guides employers, victim-survivors and bystanders through information about sexual harassment and their rights and responsibilities, if they encounter sexual harassment at work.

What can I do if I’m sexually harassed?

You can make a complaint

Get help from us.

You can make a complaint to us if you think you have experienced:

If you wish, someone else can make a complaint for you. Find out how we help people resolve complaints.

We can also give you information about your rights.

It is also against the law to victimise a person, which means treat them badly or unfairly, because they have made a complaint about discrimination, sexual harassment or vilification, or have helped someone else to make a complaint.

Guideline: Preventing and responding to workplace sexual harassment – Complying with the Equal Opportunity Act 2010 – Aug 2020

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The Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission acknowledges that we work on the traditional lands of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation. We also work remotely and serve communities on the lands of other Traditional Custodians.

We pay our respects to their Elders past and present.