The Australian government is committed to ‘fully implement’ all 55 recommendations from the Australian Human Rights Commission Respect@Work report.

This includes the positive duty, which it has promised to legislate by ‘task[ing] the Workplace Sexual Harassment Council to consult with employers, workers, unions and legal experts on the design and implementation of this strengthened legal duty.’

A positive duty requires employers to take active steps to try to eliminate sex discrimination, sexual harassment and victimisation. This article (3 min read) outlines how employers need to prepare for the new legislation.

How big is the problem of sexual harassment at work in Australia?

A 2018 survey by the Australian Human Rights Commission found that sexual harassment in Australian workplaces isYour-Call-Sexual-Harassment-Work pervasive and widespread, with 39% of women and 26% of men reporting they had experienced sexual harassment at work in the previous five years.  

Recent high-profile cases underscore the point that sexual harassment at work continues to be an everyday experience in Australia: 

  • The alleged rape of Brittany Higgins in Parliament House triggered the Set the Standard Review which shone a light on the unacceptable history of workplace harassment and sexual assault in Commonwealth Parliamentary Workplaces.
  • Findings that former High Court judge Dyson Heydon sexually harassed six junior female court staff during his time on the bench highlighted that sexual harassment is prevalent in the legal profession and grossly underreported because of power imbalances, very real fears of damaging career prospects and the fact that the process places a heavy burden on victims to make a complaint. 
  • The report into Workplace Culture at Rio Tinto found that sexual harassment was a significant organisational challenge, with survey respondents indicating an overall prevalence of 11.2%, and women significantly more likely to experience sexual harassment (28%, compared with 7% of males).

Deloitte found that the cost of workplace sexual harassment in Australia in 2018 was approximately $3.5 billion due to lost productivity and other costs such as lost wellbeing for victims, costs to respond to complaints, absenteeism and staff turnover.  But really, the economic case for creating a better and safer workplace is inseparable from the social and moral case.

The widespread nature of sexual harassment in workplaces makes it seem that sexual harassment is inevitable.  It is not.  It is both unacceptable and preventable.  It is also clear that the rate of cultural change has been far too slow and the current system is not working. 

 What is being done to protect workers?

The Australian government has committed to implement all 55 recommendations from the Australian Human Rights Commission’s landmark 2020 Respect@Work Report.  The Report is based on a survey of more than 10,000 Australians, 60 public consultations with more than 600 individuals, and 460 written submissions and sets out how Australian workplaces can better prevent and respond to sexual harassment.  

What is Positive Duty?

The most significant recommendation from the Respect@Work Report is the introduction of a positive duty on employers to take reasonable and proportionate measures to eliminate sex discrimination, sexual harassment and victimisation, as far as possible.  This is a fundamental shift from the current complaints-based approach to one that focusses on prevention and puts the onus on employers to implement positive actions that minimise the possibility of the harmful behaviours occurring in the first place. 

What should employers do now to prepare for change?

A positive duty requires employers to take active steps to try to eliminate sex discrimination, sexual harassment and victimisation. This includes developing processes that can be proactively implemented for the workplace to listen, respect and support impacted people.  Processes should be periodically reviewed, audited and reported against to ensure that they remain fit for purpose and demonstrate that employers are doing everything reasonably required to eliminate the sexual harassment and shape a positive culture where sexual harassment is not tolerated. Practical steps could include:

  • Training for leaders regarding gender inequity and the causes of sexual harassment
  • Conduct training for all staff so staff “know the line” between acceptable and unacceptable conduct
  • By-stander training to empower colleagues to speak up and intervene when they see unacceptable conduct directed towards someone they work with
  • Putting in place policies and procedures to prevent sexual harassment
  • Implementing an independent, external reporting line to enable staff to report poor behaviours anonymously
  • Implementing an organisation wide issue management system to capture reports, identify trends and “hot spots” of poor conduct and proactively intervene and minimise possible harm.  

Additional resources

  • Watch our webinar (33 mins) where our panel of experts discuss sexual harassment at work and provide 9 key ways to build a better workplace culture
  • Download Rely’s Psychological Safety Guide and learn how to create a workplace environment where people feel safe to say something when they see or experience something
  • Rely is an intelligent case management platform that can help you prevent, detect and respond to workplace issues, like sexual harassment and meet your positive duty obligations. See how it works.