You get along really well with your co-workers, but there’s one team member who leers at you when you walk by in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable. You’ve talked to them about it, and they still don’t seem to understand that it’s inappropriate. Then one day, they make an inappropriate pass at you and you’re not sure what to do next.
While dealing with the emotional baggage that comes with such a violation, it’s important to also consider how to set up legal boundaries to protect yourself. Let’s explore what to do if you or someone you know is experiencing sexual harassment at work, and when to seek legal representation.
What is workplace sexual harassment?
Before diving into the specifics of sexual harassment, let’s talk about the signs of crossing these work boundaries without consent. Sexual harassment is any unwanted or unwelcome sexual advancement that leaves the victim feeling embarrassed, humiliated, offended, violated or intimidated. This interaction is not consensual or based on mutual attraction.
The Australian Human Rights Commission says sexual harassment at work can include:
- Asking for sexual favours.
- Making suggestive comments or jokes.
- Emailing or direct messaging pornography or other content of a sexual nature via work email, direct messaging, text or social media.
- Unwanted, relentless invitations to go on dates.
- Unwelcomed touching or brushing up against a person’s body.
- Displaying images of a sexual nature at work.
- Inappropriate exposure.
You’re not alone if anything similar to the list above happens to you, and you should feel empowered to seek help or advice.
The forms of workplace harassment
If you are subject to harassment, your workplace policy may require you to report the event to your HR department or direct supervisor. After the event, however, you should consult with a lawyer to consider how to approach the issue with your employer, the responsibility HR may have to your safety and what you should expect when bringing the case forward.
If the harasser is part of your HR department or is your manager, the law will see this as an exception to the policy. In this situation, you should immediately seek legal representation, and take legal action against the person or the workplace.
The four types of harassment at work
Harassment can happen to anyone, regardless of sexual identity, sexual orientation, race, age or ability. Considering workplace harassment outside of who the victim is, and focusing instead on the behaviour of the aggressor, can help to understand the action in clearer terms.
There are four types of workplace harassment you should be aware of:
- Psychological harassment: This could come in the form of bullying an individual by making comments about their body or their life outside of work. It could also look like leaving inappropriate pictures at someone’s desk or locker — making someone into a victim of incessant pranks.
- Abuse of power: This may look like a manager or person in a higher-up position asking you for sexual favours to improve your standing at work. If the victim does not follow through on the aggressor’s request, abuse of power could all include keeping the victim from work opportunities.
- Online bullying: This could be a more subtle form of harassment as, depending on the medium, the victim may have to parse through emojis with ambiguous context, a coworker sending emails or text messages at all hours of the day.
- Retaliation: Retaliation often comes after the victim reports the sexual abuse to HR or their supervisor. It can come from the harasser, who heard the victim report the event, or from management, who may not take the claim seriously. Retaliatory actions could include changing the victim’s work hours to something unfavourable, preventing the victim from excelling at work or excluding them from work events.
Workplace bullying and sexual harassment may be referred to interchangeably. Not all workplace harassment is sexually motivated, however. For example, bullying may include berating someone for their religious beliefs, whereas sexual harassment could touching someone without consent.
Workplace sexual harassment law
On top of knowing the signs of sexual harassment, and where to file complaints, it’s important to also be aware of what laws are out there to protect you.
Work health and safety (WHS) laws have established protocols for work establishments so they can prevent workplace sexual harassment. That includes establishing a zero-tolerance policy for harassment, especially unprofessional sexual conduct. Employers should also establish training around what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour with a co-worker and what to do if you are sexually harassed at work.
In Australia, the Sex Discrimination Act protects individuals from being harassed based on their race, sex, sexual orientation, if they are pregnant, may become pregnant, breastfeeding and so on. This can help you file a sexual harassment claim that involves any of these characteristics.
The legal process of filing a sexual harassment claim
If you are being (or have been) sexually harassed, you should gather as much information and documentation as possible. While your employer will likely keep documentation of your discussions, you should keep track of each interaction with the harasser (and with your HR department) for yourself.
You may need to prepare to speak with the harasser if the abuse continues. If the behaviour is violent, you should not put yourself in this position, but if you believe you can safely address the concern with the abuser, you should attempt to communicate your discomfort. The abuser may simply not be socially aware enough to realise the interaction is inappropriate and a conversation could help.
After reporting the abuse to your employer, keep track of how they react to avoid falling victim to retaliation.
If your employer does not take any significant action based on your report, and they begin showing signs of retaliation — or the behaviour of the abuser gets worse — you should seek legal action as soon as possible.
Legal representation for victims of workplace sexual harassment
No matter what stage of the process you may be in, Gerard Malouf & Partners is here to help you through every step of the way. We care about protecting your safety and privacy, therefore, we will handle your case with sensitivity and urgency.
Everyone has a right to a safe place to work, and sexual harassment law can be complicated to navigate on your own. We offer no-obligation legal advice on the phone or in person. To get started, contact a Gerard Malouf & Partners sexual harassment lawyer today.