Overview

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Workplace sexual harassment is a known cause of psychological and physical harm. 

Under model WHS laws, businesses and organisations must manage the health and safety risks of workplace sexual harassment. This includes sexual harassment between workers and from other people at the workplace like customers and clients.

Work health and safety duties

The model WHS laws require persons conducting a business or undertaking (PCBUs) to ensure workers and others are not exposed to risks to their health and safety, including from sexual harassment. PCBUs must take a systematic approach to managing risk with the aim of eliminating the risk, or if this is not possible, minimising the risk as far as is reasonably practicable. 

One way to do this is to follow the risk management process in consultation with workers, health and safety representatives and other businesses you work with or share a premises with. This involves:

  • identifying hazards
  • assessing risks, if necessary
  • controlling risks
  • reviewing hazards and control measures to ensure they are working as planned.

Workers and others at the workplace also have a duty to take reasonable care of their own health and safety, and not adversely affect the health and safety of themselves or others. This includes following any reasonable instruction given to comply with a health and safety duty.

What can sexual harassment look like?

Sexual harassment is defined as 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.

Sexual harassment can include: 

  • unwelcome touching, hugging, cornering or kissing
  • inappropriate staring or leering
  • suggestive comments or jokes
  • using suggestive or sexualised nicknames for co-workers
  • sexually explicit pictures, posters or gifts
  • circulating sexually explicit material 
  • persistent unwanted invitations to go out on dates
  • requests or pressure for sex
  • intrusive questions or comments about a person's private life or body
  • unnecessary familiarity, such as deliberately brushing up against a person
  • insults or taunts based on sex
  • sexual gestures or indecent exposure
  • following, watching or loitering nearby another person
  • sexually explicit or indecent physical contact
  • sexually explicit or indecent emails, phone calls, text messages or online interactions
  • repeated or inappropriate advances online
  • threatening to share intimate images or film without consent
  • actual or attempted rape or sexual assault.

Some forms of sexual harassment are also criminal offences and should be reported to the police.

Sexual harassment is not always obvious, repeated or continuous. Unlike bullying, which is characterised by repeated behaviour, sexual harassment can be a one-off incident.

Sexual harassment can also be a behaviour that while not directed at a particular person, affects someone who is exposed to it or witnesses it (such as overhearing a conversation or seeing sexually explicit posters in the workplace). 

Who is affected by sexual harassment?

Women are significantly more likely to experience sexual harassment than men. Other factors which increase the likelihood of a worker experiencing sexual harassment include:

  • workers under 30 years of age
  • workers who identify as LGBTIQA+
  • Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander workers
  • workers with a disability
  • workers from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds
  • migrant workers or workers holding temporary visas, and
  • people in insecure working arrangements, e.g. casual, labour hire or part-time work.

See the Australian Human Rights Commission report of the National Inquiry into Sexual Harassment in Australian Workplaces (Respect@Work) for more information on the prevalence of workplace sexual harassment in Australia.

Impacts of sexual harassment

Sexual harassment can cause physical and psychological harm to the person it is directed at and anyone witnessing the behaviour. Sexual harassment can lead to:

  • feelings of isolation, social isolation or family dislocation
  • loss of confidence and withdrawal
  • physical injuries as a result of assault
  • stress, depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • illness such as cardiovascular disease, musculoskeletal disorders, immune deficiency and gastrointestinal disorders e.g. as a result of stress
  • negative impacts on a person’s job, career and financial security and
  • suicidal thoughts.

Further advice and support services

Safe Work Australia is not a regulator and cannot advise you about compliance with WHS laws in your jurisdiction. If you need help, please contact your state or territory work health and safety authority.

Other laws may also apply depending on the nature and circumstances of workplace sexual harassment, for example criminal laws, anti-discrimination laws and industrial laws. Further information and advice can be obtained from the organisations and agencies below:

Codes and guides
Reports and Case studies

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