Not so hostile - keeping your workplace free of harassment

Following an Australian Human Rights Commission report which found sexual harassment continues to be pervasive in Australian workplaces, changes are proposed to the Sex Discrimination Act. We outline the proposed changes as well as key ways to help keep workplaces safe.

The mooted changes come following an Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) report that found sexual harassment continues to be pervasive in Australian workplaces. 

The proposed changes include aligning the Sex Discrimination Act with existing Work, Health and Safety provisions to outlaw the creating or facilitating of a hostile, humiliating or offensive environment on the basis of sex.  

Governance Institute of Australia has lodged a submission in response to the changes. 

This article outlines the serious impact of a hostile work environment and ways to help keep workplaces safe.   

Hostile work environments  

The term ‘hostile’ has been considered by the courts.  

However, the AHRC states that: “employers should... be proactive in addressing hostile behaviour that may be embedded in the workplace culture. Examples of a potentially hostile working environment are where …sexually crude conversations, innuendo or offensive jokes are part of the accepted culture. An employee can complain about such conduct as harassment even if the conduct in question was not specifically targeted at him or her.” 

Effects of harassment 

Hostile work environments can have a significant effect on individuals. These environments can affect people both physically and mentally.  

The Government of Western Australia released a Code of Practice in 2021, which discussed “psychosocial hazards”.  

The Report stated that: “workplace psychosocial hazards are related to the psychological and social conditions of the workplace rather than just the physical conditions. These include stress, fatigue, bullying, violence, aggression, harassment and burnout, which can be harmful to the health of workers and compromise their wellbeing.”  

The report stated that the outcomes of these environments can include anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and sleep disorders.  

Identifying a problem 

The first stage is identifying if there could be a problem.  

Some processes that workplaces may consider include:  

  • review the organisational structure- are there major power imbalances? Are there particular groups that could be more vulnerable e.g. young workers, women, migrant workers? 
  • inspect the design and use of the physical workplace - are there periods where workers could be isolated?  
  • analyse human resources data - leave utilisation, exit interviews, staff turnover, workplace reviews and complaints can often provide useful information 
  • consult with the workforce - this can be useful to gain more information about physical or mental health risks e.g. anonymous surveys and focus groups 
  • review reporting and investigation processes and worker trust in these processes 
  • review available data and codes of practice from similar workplaces.  

Prevention 

The second stage is addressing and preventing harassment.  

The key processes in this stage include:  

  • risk assessment - this assessment may consider who could potentially be exposed to harassment, the source of the risk, the severity of the risk, the consequence of exposure and likelihood of harm, the existing controls and their effectiveness, additional measures that should be implemented to control the risk and how urgently action should be taken.  
  • implementing controls - the controls implemented can often depend on the circumstances of the organisation. Controls which eliminate the risk are the most effective and reliable form of control. The Federal Government’s amendments to the Respect at Work Act in 2021 included provisions that clarify that sexual harassment is a sackable offence. The organisation may also include controls which minimise exposure to risk. These could include: education resources for all workers, strengthening reporting and investigation processes and measures to prevent isolation of workers.  
  • regular monitoring - it is important that organisations systematically monitor sexual harassment and other workplace risks. Risks can change and develop over time. Some possible monitoring processes can include: regular meetings with health and safety staff to discuss risks, a standing agenda item at meetings can help ensure monitoring occurs, regular monitoring of grievances, exit interviews, staff turnover and surveys can also prove useful.  

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