February 14, 2024

Have you or a co-worker ever been sexually harassed at work?

Woman being comforted by co-workers
In 2023, 320,000 women experienced sexual harassment in the workplace (Photo credit: Unsplash)

Well, now that’s become your employer’s problem – even if you haven’t reported it. 

Changes to the Sex Discrimination Act came into effect in December 2023 that make your employer responsible for potential sexual harassment in the workplace. 


It’s called positive duty and it puts the responsibility square in the hands of your boss to avoid even the possibility of sexual harassment. 


It’s no longer acceptable – or legal – to wait until affected worker/s have come forward. 


So, what’s considered sexual harassment? 

Sexual harassment is basically when someone says or does something sexual that makes you uncomfortable. It can come in many forms.


Any sexual advances, requests for sex, hugging, touching or staring, comments on your body or looks, text messages of a sexual nature or links to pornographic content, these are all considered to be sexual harassment – and it’s illegal.


It’s common to feel intimidated by this behaviour and it can be a lot harder to deal with when it’s coming from more than one person, or from someone who holds a more senior position than you do in the workplace (like your manager).  


If you’re unsure of your rights, you should contact your union. 


How and why have the laws changed? 

The global #MeToo movement raised significant awareness worldwide of the issue of sexual harassment at work. In Australia, the Respect@Work report by the Sex Discrimination Commissioner used evidence-based research into how employers can create a safer workplace.  


The Australian Human Rights Commission used this evidence to come up with the idea of a positive duty and created 7 principles or guidelines that employers can follow to comply. 

Employers have an obligation to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace (Photo: Adobe Stock)

But first, what is a positive duty and how does it change my workplace? 

Positive duty in the Sex Discrimination Act refers to ‘relevant unlawful conduct’. This means it’s no longer enough to just respond to allegations of sexual misconduct, after they’ve been reported.  

Your employer – no matter how big or small the business or organisation – must now try to actively prevent it from happening by creating a workplace culture that makes employees feel safe and unthreatened in relation to their gender and sexuality. 


So, how will it work? 

There are 7 ‘positive duties’ an employer must comply with. These are actions, based on the available evidence, that will make all workplaces safer. 


  1. Leadership  
    Managers and business owners will be obliged to lead by example. That means they will have to behave lawfully and respectfully towards employees and staff.


  2. Culture  
    This goes alongside leadership. If everybody is treated equally, it’s easier for people to speak up when things go wrong. It makes for a better workplace culture.


  3. Knowledge 
    Employers must make clear policies on acceptable workplace behaviour that all staff are trained in and can follow.


  4. Risk management 
    It’s not enough to set and forget. Employers must also watch for risks and assess if any action needs to be taken. If one or more staff aren’t following the rules, it’s not on coworkers to fix, it’s on your manager.


  5. Support 
    Even if we do our best, things can still go badly. Managers need to offer the right support or seek it elsewhere when it’s needed.


  6. Responding 
    When there is an incident, the response must follow a process so that, in all cases, the victims (and perpetrators) of harassment are treated the same way. Being responsive means that any action taken must not involve a lengthy process.


  7. Monitoring 
    Incidents in the workplace that involve sexual harassment or sex discrimination must be documented by employers so that they can be continually assessed to see if they are working the way we want them to. 
You have a right to feel safe at work (Photo credit: Unsplash)

Where bystanders come in – and what you can do 

Even if you haven’t had a bad experience, it’s still helpful to think about strategies you can take to identify and halt harassment. Find out how to be an ally here. (link to ally blog?) 


Got questions or issues at your workplace that you need help with?  

United Workers Union members can get advice and support from the union. Your first stop is your union delegate. If you don’t know who that is or can’t contact them, follow this link to find the right person to speak to  


Not a member? If you or someone you work with is experiencing harassment at work and you want help then it’s definitely time to join your union. Fill out this form and join UWU today. 


When workers join together, we can achieve much better outcomes not just at your workplace, but for everyone else’s too.