What to do if you’ve been sexually harassed at work

Sexual harassment is any form of unwanted or uninvited sexual behaviour that’s humiliating, intimidating or offensive. If you are currently experiencing sexual harassment in your workplace, you have a range of options available to you.

Sexual harassment can take many different forms, including:

  • sexually offensive remarks or facial expressions
  • lewd jokes or sharing stories about sexual experiences
  • sharing sexual material around the workplace, including posters and screensavers
  • repeatedly asking for dates despite being rebuffed, or asking for sexual favours
  • sexually offensive remarks, gestures or facial expressions, including staring at the person’s body up and down
  • inappropriate and suggestive touching or kissing of the person’s clothing and/or body
  • intrusive questions about sexual activity.

Sexual harassment also includes certain behaviours that may be a criminal offence, such as sexual assault and stalking.

Understand your options

Below are some of the options you could consider, these do not need to be followed in the order set out:

Check your workplace policy

Your workplace might have a policy that sets out steps you can take, for example a Sexual Harassment Policy, an Equal Employment Opportunity Policy or a Grievance/Complaints Policy.  You might have received a copy of these policies during induction, you might be able to access these on your employer’s intranet or they might be available through human resources.

If not, or in addition, you might like to think about taking one of more of the steps below.

Talk to the other person

Depending on your relationship with the other person and the nature of the sexual harassment, you could try telling the person that their conduct is unwanted or makes you feel uncomfortable and ask them to stop.  This might result in the behaviour ending because sometimes people lack awareness about their actions until it is brought to their attention.

Seek assistance

If you do not feel comfortable talking directly with the person or people involved, or if that method has not worked, you could consider talking to a human resources officer or manager at your workplace.  If there is no one more senior than you, you might consider talking to a board member.

This should result in the manager or human resource officer talking to you further about your options.  If you want to keep your complaint confidential you need to tell the other person this.

The human resource officer or manager might be able to talk to the person who engaged in the sexual harassment directly or they might recommend that you escalate the issue to a more formal level.

Remember that if the sexual harassment is of a very serious nature, the person you talk to about this may have a duty of care to report it to more senior levels of management to ensure your health and safety in the workplace.

Make a formal complaint at work

If talking to the person involved in the sexual harassment does not work then you could make a formal complaint about the behaviour within your workplace.

If your workplace policies do not provide information on how to do this, it is best to put your complaint in writing and only provide it to a human resource officer or manager.  You should provide as much details as you can about the behaviour including who was involved, when it occurred and who else might have seen or heard it.  If you have documents or copies of documents that contain sexually harassing material such as emails, pictures or screen shots, this should be included.

A formal complaint made to your workplace should result in an investigation of the matter.  This would involve someone asking the person that has sexually harassed you to tell their side of events.  They might also need to ask you more questions and gather further information from any witnesses.  Once an investigation is complete your employer has to decide what to do and this might include ending the engagement of the person who sexually harassed you, moving them to another location or giving them a warning.

Lodge a claim with an external body

You can make a sexual harassment claim under discrimination legislation to one of the organisations listed below.  Visit their website or contact them directly to work out how to lodge a claim.

Things to remember

Take notes

If you experience sexual harassment, you should also make notes of the relevant conduct including the following details:

  • What occurred?
  • When did the conduct occur?
  • Where did the conduct occur?
  • Who was involved? Who may have witnessed or overhead it?

If the sexual harassment is all or partly in writing you should maintain the originals or at least copies of this material.  This is especially important where it may later be deleted such as in an instant messaging app.

You should not be punished for making a claim

Victimisation is unlawful under the discrimination laws.  Victimisation is when a person subjects, or threatens to subject, another person to any detriment because they:

  • have made, or intend to make, a complaint under discrimination laws including about sexual harassment
     OR
  • have given, or intend to give, evidence or information in connection with a complaint under discrimination laws including about sexual harassment.

You can take action for past sexual harassment

If you have experienced sexual harassment in the past, you can still take action.

If you still work at the workplace where the harassment occurred, you can tell your manager or a human resource officer and they can talk to you about your options.  If you no longer work at that workplace, you could still report to that workplace to let them know what occurred.

In addition, you could consider lodging a claim with an external body.  If the conduct occurred more than 6 months to 2 years ago, depending on the Commission or Tribunal, it may need to go through a process to determine whether it can accept your claim.

You should follow procedure to avoid defamation

If you experience sexual harassment you should be very careful not to publish the complaint any more widely than to the appropriate person or office tasked with receiving the matter.

If you do publish information about your sexual harassment claim, the person you make the allegations against could claim that you have defamed them.  Defamation basically means harming someone’s character by publishing material likely to lessen their standing or reputation.

However, the law provides protection for people making a legitimate complaint in good faith to an appropriate authority such as the police, a HR manager or someone else whose role it is to receive allegations of sexual harassment.

Social media is often seen as informal and not too serious but posting on social media posts such as Tweets or Facebook updates can constitute defamation.

   Don’t ignore the risk of defamation without getting legal advice

While going through the appropriate channels may feel frustrating, it’s important to do so. The risk of potential defamation claim should not be ignored. A current example is the claim brought by actor Craig McLaughlin who is suing Fairfax Media, the ABC and fellow actor, Christie Whelan Browne, over claims and reports that he bullied and allegedly indecently assaulted her and other female cast members during the 2014 production of The Rocky Horror Show.

If you have been sexually harassed in your workplace, always make the complaint to the appropriate person or authority. Don’t publicise it more broadly unless a lawyer tells you it’s okay to do so.

More resources

If you have been sexually harassed at work, our resources can help you understand your options.

Join Now’s campaign to end sexual harassment

Join Now

Tribunals and Commissions with which you can lodge a sexual harassment claim:

 

Other places where you can report sexual harassment:
  • Police
    •  If immediately unsafe, call 000
    •  If no immediate danger but police assistance is required, call 131 444
  • Safe Work Australia

 

The laws:

Sexual harassment is unlawful in accordance with the following laws:

  • Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (CTH)
  • Equal Opportunity Act 2010 (VIC)
  • Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 (NSW)
  • Anti-Discrimination Act 1991 (QLD)
  • Anti-Discrimination Act 1998 (TAS)
  • Equal Opportunity Act 1984 (SA)
  • Anti-Discrimination Act 1996 (NT)
  • Discrimination Act 1991 (ACT)
  • Equal Opportunity Act 1984 (WA)

The contents of this page has been prepared with pro bono assistance from Russell Kennedy Lawyers.

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