Sexual harassment is any unwelcome sexual advance, unwelcome request for sexual favours or other unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature, in circumstances where a reasonable person, having regard to all the circumstances, would anticipate the possibility that the person harassed would be offended, humiliated or intimidated.
If you’re a person conducting a business or undertaking (PCBU), you have work health and safety (WHS) duties to ensure workers and others are not exposed to risks to their health and safety, including from sexual harassment.
Types of sexual harassment in the workplace
Sexual harassment can be a one-off incident, repeated or continuous. It can be obvious or subtle. It can be directed at a person or group of people, or as general comments and actions.
Sexual harassment can take many forms, including
- unwelcome touching, hugging, cornering or kissing
- inappropriate staring or leering
- suggestive comments or jokes
- using suggestive nicknames for co-workers
- sexually explicit pictures, posters or gifts
- circulating sexually explicit material
- persistent unwanted invitations to go out on dates
- asking or pressuring for sex
- intrusive questions or comments about a person's private life or body
- being too familiar, like brushing up against a person on purpose
- insults or taunts based on sex
- sexual gestures or indecent exposure
- following, watching or hanging around another person
- touching people in a sexual way
- emailing, calling or messaging indecent or sexual things
- threatening to share intimate images or film
- actual or attempted rape or sexual assault.
Effects of workplace sexual harassment
Sexual harassment can harm the person it’s directed at, as well as those who witness it.
It can harm physical and mental health, leading to:
- feelings of being alone and isolated
- confidence loss and withdrawal
- injuries from assault
- stress, depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- stress-related illnesses
- problems with a person’s job, career and financial security
- suicidal thoughts
Workers more likely to experience sexual harassment
Although anyone can experience sexual harassment, workers are more likely to experience it when they:
- are women
- are under 30 years of age
- identify as LGBTIQA+
- are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander
- live with disability
- are from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds
- are migrant workers or workers holding temporary visas
- are in insecure working arrangements – for example casual, labour hire or part-time work.
What to do if you experience it
Persons conducting a business or undertaking (PCBUs), such as your employer or the organisation you are working for, should provide you with information and support on how to respond if sexual harassment is directed at you, what you should do if you witness it and how to report it.
As well as addressing the behaviour directly, the PCBU must also ensure your safety by identifying if it could occur again and how to prevent it.
For information on what you should do and details of support services, see Workplace sexual harassment – advice for workers.
National inquiry into workplace sexual harassment
The Australian Human Rights Commission inquiry into workplace sexual harassment began in 2018.
In March 2020, the Australia’s Sex Discrimination Commissioner delivered the Australian Human Rights Commission report of the National Inquiry into Sexual Harassment in Australian Workplaces, with recommendations about:
- its prevalence, nature and reporting in Australian workplaces
- the role of technology
- its drivers, including risk factors for population groups or in different workplace settings
- the current legal framework
- existing measures to address it and examples of good practice
- its impacts on individuals and businesses, including its economic impact.
The Respect@Work website was launched by the Australian Human Rights Commission in November 2022, in response to a key recommendation of the Inquiry. The website provides information for employers and workers to help prevent and respond to workplace sexual harassment, including resources and education materials.