December 2023 sees the introduction of additional powers for the Human Rights Commission (the HRC). The HRC will have new powers to investigate and enforce regulations aimed at proactively eliminating all forms of sexual harassment in the workplace. This represents a significant shift in the regulatory landscape, underlining the urgency and importance of addressing this issue.
Businesses have always had an obligation to implement strategies to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace, however this obligation has been substantially increased by the introduction of a positive duty to do “all things reasonable” to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace.
Types of sexual harassment
While headline-grabbing incidents of sexual harassment do occur, they represent only a fraction of the problem. The most common type of sexual harassment takes subtler forms, often manifesting as incidents that convey offensive or demeaning attitudes based on gender or sex. These actions might not be as immediately apparent, but they can also create risk and a hostile work environment that impacts morale, engagement, and overall productivity.
The impact on your business
Addressing workplace sexual harassment isn't just about moral and ethical responsibility; it also has tangible consequences for your business. Failing to implement strategies to proactively prevent sexual harassment in the workplace can lead to several detrimental outcomes, including:
- Reputational damage: Cases of sexual harassment can damage a company's reputation, affecting its image and brand in the eyes of both employees and customers.
- Workplace safety and discrimination penalties: Legal consequences may include fines and penalties for failing to maintain a safe work environment. As an examples, here is a link to a recent prosecution from Worksafe.
- Lost productivity: Sexual harassment can lead to decreased employee morale and engagement, resulting in lost productivity and increased turnover.
- Employee wellbeing: Employees who experience harassment or those who witness it occurring in the workplace may suffer from emotional distress, negatively impacting their mental health and overall well-being.
Taking proactive steps
To protect your business and your employees, it's crucial to take proactive steps to eliminate workplace sexual harassment. Some of these steps include:
- Develop a meaningful policy which clearly articulates the employer’s position in relation to conduct which may constitute sexual harassment in the workplace.
- Education and training: Implement sexual harassment prevention programs, including employee training, to ensure everyone is aware of what constitutes harassment and how to report it.
- Effective reporting mechanisms: Create a safe and confidential channel for employees to report incidents of harassment. Ensure that complaints are taken seriously and that there are clear processes for investigation and resolution.
- Zero-tolerance policy: Establish a zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment and make sure it's consistently enforced at all levels of the organisation.
- Cultural change: Foster a workplace culture that promotes respect, equality, and diversity. Leadership should set the example for desired behaviour.
In summary, workplace sexual harassment is a pressing issue that requires immediate attention. With new regulations in place, the Human Rights Commission is reinforcing it’s imperative for businesses to take proactive measures to eliminate harassment of all forms. Not only is it the right thing to do, it is also crucial for safeguarding your business from significant risks, including reputational damage, financial penalties and lost productivity.
To address the root causes and real risks of workplace sexual harassment, businesses should take action now. Your commitment to creating a safe and respectful work environment is not only a regulatory requirement but also a vital step toward a more equitable and productive future.
In addition to the new powers of the HRD, the Fair Work Commission (FWC) also has new powers in relation to the issuing of Stop Sexual Harassment orders. These new powers go much further than the powers previously available to the FWC in this area.
If you would like more information on the upcoming changes or would like to discuss how to protect your organisation and employees, please contact your usual Mazars advisor or alternatively, reach out to one of HR specialists via the form below or on:
Author: Greg Halse
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