Sexual Harassment in Australian Workplaces bigger than we think

There has always been a lot of confusion and wordplay around the definition of sexual harassment, to dodge bullets or simply because of general ignorance. But one thing that has not changed is the legal definition of sexual harassment, and what makes sexual harassment unique when compared to other areas of misconduct, such as workplace bullying, is that it can be a once-off incident. What is done can not be undone, and there is no tolerance when it comes to misconduct of a sexual nature in the eyes of the law.

The Law

Sexual Harassment in Australia

  • does not have to be intentional or repeated to be unlawful, it can be a one-off incident as well;
  • can be visual, verbal, physical; direct or indirect
  • can still be considered sexual harassment whether or not the person who engaged in the conduct intended to give offence; and
  • In the case of sexual assault and indecent exposure, criminal laws can apply.

The Definition

A verbal, physical or visual gesture, subjected to any person repeatedly or otherwise, of criminal nature or otherwise, with or without anticipating offence, humiliation or intimidation towards the harassed person, is considered sexual harassment.

Psychological Effects on an Individual Employee

According to Ann McFadyen, associate professor of strategic management at the University of Texas, Arlington, Bouts of depression, anxiety, and stress are the least of the psychological problems caused by sexual harassment.

She continues, in more grave cases, victims can suffer symptoms of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) like flashbacks and panic attacks, which is to say they relive the experience again and again. Ann further stated that victims may also be more inclined to develop a substance abuse problem or attempt suicide.

An LA psychologist who specialises in the causes and impact of sexual harassment Debra Borys says the anxiety becomes pretty intense and regular, and victims can come to dread work. It affects their concentration. They can become depressed and feel helpless. They can also develop physical symptoms such as stomach problems, headaches, and other psychosomatic and stress-related ailments.

Sexist behaviour and undesired sexual attention in a workplace (or anywhere for that matter) if it happens for the course of time, can affect a person’s mental as well as physical health, according to experts.

Losses that can be incurred by SMBs or Large Organisations

Other than disrupting the ease and smoothness of the workflow, absenteeism, increased staff turnover, a dramatic rise in mental health issues, sexual harassment and misconduct can lead to the investment of heavy resources in investigations, mediation and legal proceedings, lost revenue opportunities, irreparable brand damage and plummeting shareholder value not to mention the elaborate financial compensation and fines.

Currently, the compensation for sexual harassment victims in the workplace ranges from $300,000 to $1,300,000 by Courts and Tribunals in Australia.

Case Laws of Australian Workplaces

STU v JKL (Qld) Pty Ltd [2016] QCAT 505, the Year 2016

Summary: In 2016, A hotel worker was sexually assaulted in her room by a fellow night staff member in her room, offered by her employer when she was asked to relocate to Brisbane for her job. QCAT member Ann Fitzpatrick asserted that if the hotel owner (the employee) had taken steps to give workplace compliance training to the employees, ensuring compliance, work, and health safety, then such rogue acts would have been avoided.

Outcome: QCAT found the hotel and the caretaker jointly and severally liable, ordering $313,316 in damages.

Richardson v Oracle Corporation Australia Pty Ltd [2014] FCAFC 82, Year 2014

Summary: Ms Richardson complained against Mr Tucker, both of whom were appointed as sales representatives at Oracle. Throughout her tenure, Mr Tucker would make inappropriate verbal advances to Ms Richardson. He hinted at having sexual relations with her explicitly. Richardson complained to Oracle, and they gave Mr Tucker a series of warnings. This incident caused Richardson stress in work as well as in her personal life with her husband. She left the job to a lower-paying one.

Outcome: Oracle was asked to compensate her with $100,000 for assessed pain and suffering and an additional $30,000 for her economic loss.

Responsibilities of an Employer

Your modus operandi, like all of the best places to work, should be to create a safe, inclusive space where everyone can be the best version of themselves.

An employer is responsible for providing the employees with an environment that is free of vilification, discrimination, unhealthy work and health safety activities, bullying, or sexual harassment of any kind.

You can do that by:

Liabilities of an Employer

The legislative provisions under Section 133 of the Anti-Discrimination Act 1991 (Qld) and Section 106 of the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth) provide that if an employee engages in sexual harassment with or without the involvement of the employer, directly or indirectly, not only the perpetrator-employee but also his/her employer is vicariously liable to compensate for the damages caused.

How Can Sentrient Help You as an Employer?

Sentrient is an online workplace compliance system that allows you to meet your legal obligations for workplace compliance training, managing your HR and company policies and getting real-time reports for audit purposes and board reports. Sentrient e-learning courses are kept up-to-date with legislation for all States and Territories in Australia.

Regardless of the size of your business, this workplace compliance suite helps you train and educate your managers, HR professionals, and workforce on how to create a safe space and avoid breaches in work health and safety, privacy, and avoid workplace bullying, sexual harassment.

After completion of the courses, all your employees will get certified. These certifications would mean that they have been adequately trained about all the rules and regulations of the company and on the proper code of conduct. They would also certify that all the employees take full responsibility for their individual behaviour.

How Can Sentrient Help Your Employees?

When your employees are subjected to misconduct, such as incidents of harassment, bullying or discrimination, they will know the right course of action to take

Not only will your employees be educated with the right code of conduct in an easy-to-digest way, but with Sentrient workplace compliance courses, they will also know their rights and who they can contact for help, internally or externally.

Find out why Sentrient is the #1 workplace compliance system for Australian Businesses.

Get a free demo to understand our product better. You can also reach out to our sales team at or call us at 1300 040 589, and we will be happy to help.

Sexual Harassment Prevention Training Course