Group of workers talking

How workplace structures should respond to sexual harassment

Working towards positive change

6 minute read
Group of workers talking

Platitudes and promises of an inclusive workplace are easy but putting in the hard work to make your organisation meaningfully responsive to workplace sexual harassment takes time, thought and the advice of experts.

Fine-tuned organisational practices and systems of reporting may not be as glamorous as more tokenistic efforts; however they are the critical, demonstrably impactful way forward for companies wanting to make meaningful change, protect their employees and lay the foundations for a holistically safer workplace.

But how do you begin to implement these changes?

The facts on workplace sexual harassment in 2023

To fix an issue, you must first understand how it is presently functioning.

In the case of workplace sexual harassment, this means acknowledging its near-ubiquity across professional environments.

White Ribbon Australia Chief Executive Officer and Communicare Chief Executive Officer Melissa Perry said a 2021 World Risk Poll by Lloyd’s Register Foundation surveyed more than 125,000 people in 121 countries about workplace bullying, violence and harassment, including sexual harassment.

“Australia ranked in the top 10 countries for the highest rates of workplace violence and/or harassment,” she said.

“Sexual harassment and discrimination is a common experience occurring in every industry, in every location and at every level in Australian workplaces.”

Centre for Social Impact at The University of Western Australia (CSI UWA) Senior Research Fellow Leanne Lester said workplace sexual harassment was still prevalent and pervasive despite growing awareness.

“Over the past 12 months, about one in five Australians had been sexually harassed at work – 41 per cent of women and 26 per cent of men,” she said.

“In more than half of the cases, the sexual harassment was repeated and ongoing for more than six months.”

According to Dr Lester, workplace sexual harassment is often further complicated by office dynamics, where survivors typically have less social power within the workplace.

“Women and gender-diverse people, people of colour, LGBTQIA+ people and Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander peoples are at greater risk of experiencing harm,” she said.

“People who do harm often have more power because they hold a senior role.”

A particularly concerning example of the prevalence of workplace sexual harassment is found in one of WA’s leading and most lucrative industries, with a recent report by Champions of Change Coalition finding that one in four female survey participants had experienced physical acts of sexual assault and two-thirds had experienced verbal sexual harassment while working in the WA fly-in, fly-out mining industry.

Despite the unfortunate reality of workplace sexual harassment being commonplace even among WA’s biggest industries, a culture of silence persists, with only 17 per cent of people who experience an incident reporting it.

But why do these survivors keep quiet?

Why survivors don’t report

Australia’s workplace culture of silence around sexual harassment can largely be put down to the ineffectiveness of current systems of reporting and a lack of meaningful support for survivors.

During her research into workplace sexual harassment with CSI UWA, Dr Lester said the survivors interviewed overwhelmingly reported having a negative experience when attempting to make their voices heard at work.

“Reporting workplace sexual harassment behaviour to management and human resources was a negative experience for all interviewed, with many describing the experience as ‘re-traumatising’,” she said.

“Popular form-based reporting is burdensome and challenging for people who have been targeted by workplace sexual harassment, as there is often a lack of clarity around the reporting process – different pieces of legislation make it difficult for workers and employers to navigate.

“Our interview participants also described many barriers to formally reporting, including the risk of retaliation either personal, socially, or systematically, as well as a loss of reputation, a loss of work, a distrust and fear in reporting, the expected downplaying of their experiences, other’s judgement, and impacts on their self-esteem and mental health.”

It is crucial to note that survivor’s fears of retribution for speaking truthfully about their experience with workplace sexual harassment is exacerbated by the previously mentioned imbalance of power between the individual and the person who has done them harm – often, the person who has harmed has more sway and influence in the workplace.

Existing systems of reporting do not address these fears and realities for survivors, so the silence persists and feeds itself into a system, which only benefits the perpetrators of harm.

Implementing changes in reporting

According to Dr Lester, the way workplaces initially respond to reports of workplace sexual harassment can have a significant impact on the trajectory of the survivor’s self-worth and the meaning they make of their experience.

This research-based knowledge means companies have a responsibility to protect their employees from the long-term consequences of a lazy or apathetic attitude towards workplace sexual harassment.

“People who have experienced workplace sexual harassment must feel safe, be aware of their rights, understand support options and have clear pathways to access support,” Dr Lester said.

“This can be accomplished through ensuring people have resources such as an external support person alongside them through the reporting process, simultaneous mental health support, plus unbiased and easy to understand clarity of processes and pathways.”

Questioning the steps of the existing process is also crucial – for example, considering whether a particular part of a company’s current procedure is enacted at the extreme detriment of the survivor.

Dr Lester noted the particularly disturbing story of an interviewee who was made to talk about her experience with workplace sexual harassment three times in front of different men in management at her company – this automatic part of the reporting process was re-traumatising to the survivor and was implemented without her psychological safety in mind.

More sinisterly, many workplaces insist on non-disclosure agreements, which are not only implied but also legalised, contributing to a culture of silence.

“Due to a non-disclosure agreement, one interviewee was unable to tell her immediate boss about her own workplace sexual harassment incident and had to continue working in a team with the perpetrator,” Dr Lester said.

Beyond the obvious psychological harm these ineffective systems of reporting cause to survivors, there is also the risk of significant social and financial harm if a workplace’s systems of reporting do not expressly engage with the best interests of the survivor.

“Another survivor was separated from her team due to the presence of her offender, rather than the organisation removing the perpetrator,” Dr Lester said.

“As a result, she was disadvantaged as she became disconnected from her team, causing detriment to her career.”

Prevention and workplace culture

Analysing and restructuring your company’s systems of reporting is a crucial part of the process, but there are many other efforts you can make in tandem to protect employees from sexual harassment – both preventatively and in the aftermath.

“It needs to be remembered that reporting does not address the cause or ongoing impact of workplace sexual harassment,” Dr Lester said.

“The general approach to it needs to change from being reactive and complaints-based to one centred around prevention, education and positive organisational cultural change.

“Recommendations for organisations include primary prevention through education and training, cultural change around silencing, data tracking, having clear workplace sexual harassment policies and processes, as well as clear consequences and sanctions for breaching workplace sexual harassment policies.

“People targeted by workplace sexual harassment also need to be offered an employee assistance program and changes to working arrangements to ensure they feel safe.”

Enlisting the experts

There are programs, which can help companies analyse their workplace culture, as well as procedures to ultimately make positive changes.

Ms Perry said White Ribbon Australia’s Workplace Accreditation program could collaborate with companies to assess their responses and preventative actions related to workplace sexual harassment, in addition to providing instructions to address flaws in policy or culture.

“The White Ribbon Accreditation program is a robust and rigorous process providing evidence meeting 12 criteria across three standards,” she said.

“This evidence is independently assessed by a panel of experts and industry leaders – it is a deep dive into workplace culture.”

White Ribbon’s work aligns with recent legislation, which made addressing workplace sexual harassment not only morally sound but also legally required.

“New laws for workplaces came into effect in December 2023,” Ms Perry said.

“This positive-duty legislation obliges our workplaces to have a proactive approach to preventing sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace, meaning we no longer have a legal obligation to just respond – we now have a legal and moral obligation to be proactive.

“It is not lost on me that the Human Rights Commission has been given the regulatory powers to ensure these new laws are embedded in our workplaces.

“This is not a women’s issue and this is not a men’s issue – this is a human rights issue.

“Positive duty in our workplaces is a fundamental legal and ethical responsibility.”