Sexual harassment has nothing to do with sex. Like bullying, it’s all about power over the vulnerable. Sex is just the strategy used to get it. Companies need to have policies to address it.
Sexual harassment is unlawful under Section 28 of the Sex Discrimination Act. It can be a form of sexual assault and it is definitely, under the law, a form of sex discrimination.
And yet it continues. High profile cases like the David Jones scandal, where former chief executive Mark McIness was forced to resign after a staffer accused him of sexual harassment, turned it into a talking point in workplaces and at dinner tables across the country.
So what are the ways to deal with sexual harassment when it occurs?
Under the Sex Discrimination Act, employers might limit their liability if they can show they took “all reasonable steps” to prevent the sexual harassment occurring. These “reasonable steps” might include policies and procedures designed to create a harassment- free environment. The measures could also include procedures to deal with allegations of discrimination made by employees or customers. The policies, however, can only be effective if they are well implemented. That puts the onus on the employer to provide ongoing training, communication and reinforcement.
According to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, every sexual harassment policy should have a strong opening statement making it clear that sexual harassment will not be tolerated under any circumstances. It should also state that disciplinary action will be taken against any employee or agent who breaches the policy. The opening statement should appear above the signature of the chief executive officer to give it credibility and maximum impact.
The policy should also have a clearly worded definition of sexual harassment and provide some examples of what could be construed as harassment that are relevant to that particular working environment.
It should make it clear sexual harassment is against the law and explain that sexual harassment is not behaviour which is based on mutual attraction, friendship and respect. If the interaction is consensual, welcome and reciprocated, it is not harassment.