In Harassment

Harassment Definition and Laws in Australia


No one likes having to wake up in the morning only to have to face a day at work filled with harassment and hostility. While working to provide an income and support for our families, we expect to be treated with respect and kindness. However, harassment in the workplace is prevalent in Australia and particularly sexual harassment.

The Australian Human Rights Commission explains that “22 percent of women aged 18-64, and 5 percent of men aged 18-64 years, experience sexual harassment in the workplace. It is not surprising, therefore, that almost one-third of all complaints received by the Australian Human Rights Commission in 2010-2011 under the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 related to sexual harassment” (Broderick, 2012).

Studies have shown that not only does sexual harassment affect the victim for whom the act is being committed, but, also, damages the health of those bystanders or witnesses to the harassment. They too fear the repercussions of speaking out or against the harassment of another individual.

The victim of harassment can suffer emotionally, as well as, physically and psychologically and can even cause missed days from work. Who has the energy to face such harassment on a daily basis?

There are several forms of harassment which happen daily, including within the workplace, sexual harassment along with bullying and harassment are well documented. Harassment is defined this way: “When someone is made to feel intimidated, insulted or humiliated because of their race, colour, national or ethnic origin; sex; disability; sexual preference; or some other characteristic under antidiscrimination or human rights legislation. It can also happen if someone is working in a ‘hostile’ – or intimidating – environment” (Broderick, 2012).

Persons committing the act of harassment will go so far as to sabotage another’s work, i.e.; crashing their computer, destroying important papers and insinuating that if they would just sleep with the person, the harassment would seize and they would have a much better “working” relationship. This is harassment.

Behaviours listed as harassment include (Broderick, 2012):

  • Telling insulting jokes about particular racial groups.
  • Sending explicit or sexually suggestive emails.
  • Making derogatory comments or taunts about someone’s race or religion.
  • Asking intrusive questions about someone’s personal life, including their sex life.

These types of behaviours are unacceptable. It makes the simple task of preparing for work daunting and stressful. It lowers self-esteem and self-confidence, causes anxiety and can bring productivity in the workplace to a halt. Having to focus on the harasser rather than your job, may also cause accidents, as well as, slowing down production for the rest of the staff. Harassment is counter-productive and should not be tolerated under any circumstances.

Harassment in the workplace is also justification for a lawsuit against the company or organization should they not act upon the harassment claims. Fines may be imposed, up to and including a jail sentence if threats are made against a person or their family.

“Sexual harassment disproportionately affects women with 1 in 5 experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace at some time. However, 1 in 20 men also report experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace” (Broderick, 2012).

“Every year, sexual harassment in the workplace is one of the most common types of complaints received by the Commission under the Sex Discrimination Act. In 2009 – 2010, 21% of all complaints to the Australian Human Rights Commission were under the Sex Discrimination Act, and 88% of those complaints related to sex discrimination in the workplace” (Australian Human Rights Commission).

Sexual harassment definition is: “Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature that tends to create a hostile or offensive work environment” (Sexual Harassment, n.d.).

Forms of sexual harassment include unwelcomed sexual advances, request for sexual favours; and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature. Repeatedly making sexual advances towards a coworker or employee is unlawful and inappropriate.

What can we do to address Sexual Harassment Issues in the workplace?:

  1. Confronting the bully or person doing the harassing will sometimes help.
  2. Speak to a supervisor, manager or person in charge.
  3. Be sure to document the incidents in the event they do not subside and a court case is filed.
  4. If you’re a bystander, speak up. Do not condone this type of behaviour.
  5. Employers may bring in “Preventer Educators” to speak to all personnel and provide training on exactly what “Sexual Harassment” is.
  6. Follow up on any claims made by the victims. Acknowledge and respond appropriately.
  7. Offer counseling for victims of harassment.
  8. All reports from the victim should remain confidential.
  9. Written reports should be maintained on the offender.
  10. Harassing statements which are “life-threatening” or threatening bodily harm should immediately be reported to the authorities!

There are other forms of harassment as well. The intimidation of a person or coworker is considered harassment. Bullying and harassment go hand in hand whether it is at school, work, home, or in public.

“One definition of workplace bullying is “the repeated less favourable treatment of a person by another or others in the workplace, which may be considered unreasonable and inappropriate workplace practice. It includes behaviour that intimidates, offends, degrades or humiliates a worker”. (Source ACTUQ/QCCI/Qld Govt Dept of Workplace Health and Safety)” (Commission, 2010).

Bullying and harassing behaviours can be described as psychological abuse. These behaviours may include:

  • Physical or verbal abuse
  • Yelling, screaming or offensive language
  • Excluding or isolating employees
  • Psychological harassment
  • Intimidation
  • Assigning meaningless tasks unrelated to the job
  • Giving employees impossible jobs
  • Deliberately changed work rosters to inconvenience particular employees
  • Undermining work performance by deliberately withholding information vital for effective work performance

Note: All of the above descriptions were explained from the Australian Human Rights Commission…

Employers as well as employees should understand the above mentioned acts are harassment and/or bullying practices and should be reported. If harassment, bullying or hostile situations or not prevented at work, an escalation of violence may occur. Prevention is key.

Employers also need to be aware that if they do nothing to intervene when harassment complaints are made, it is “referred as the principle of ‘vicarious liability. This means that if an employee sexually harasses a co-worker, client, customer or other protected person the employer can be held legally responsible and may be liable for damages unless they took all reasonable steps to prevent the harassment occurring” (Chapter 5: Liability – Effectively preventing and responding to sexual harassment: A Code of Practice for Employers (2008), n.d.).

Harassment, bullying and sexual harassment against same genders is also inappropriate, as well as, illegal. It will be viewed in the courts and punishment is the same as if it were opposite gender roles. Intimidating an employee or making sexual overtures towards the same sex gender is considered the same as harassing the opposite sex.

Harassment in any form should be taken serious by employers, employees, witnesses, bystanders and all involved. Posting policies and procedures on harassment, bullying and sexual harassment within the workplace can deter such behaviour. They should be visible to everyone and easily accessible. Policies should be discussed on a monthly basis, reminding individuals these practices will be dealt with accordingly, up to and including, suspension without pay, demotion, transfer or outright dismissal.

The victim (or victims) should in no way be punished or disciplined as this could only bring further harm to the victim. They are, after-all, not responsible for other’s actions.

All persons have the right to work within an environment which is free of offensive, hostile feelings. No harassment, bullying, and sexual harassment should be part of the “normal” workday.

It is important to also note that many employees do not report harassment for fear of retaliation from the offender or even supervisors. Excellent communication skills with employees and to maintain an “open door” policy in place can assist with obstacles pertaining to non-reporting. Employees should be reassured their situations are important and actions will be taken against the offender, every step should be taken to protect victims of harassment.


Broderick, E. (2012, June). Encourage. Support. Act! – Introduction. Retrieved November 20, 2014, from Australian Human Rights Commission:

Chapter 5: Liability – Effectively preventing and responding to sexual harassment: A Code of Practice for Employers (2008). (n.d.). Retrieved November 20, 2014, from Australian Human Rights Commission:

Commission, A. H. (2010, January 11). What is workplace discrimination and harassment? Retrieved November 20, 2014, from Australian Human Rights Commission:

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