Finance Work This is what constitutes sexual harassment in the workplace

This is what constitutes sexual harassment in the workplace

sexual harassment
When it comes to sexual harassment, intent is irrelevant. It's all about how someone perceives the interaction. Photo: Getty
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While the growing discussion around sexual harassment and assault in the workplace is an undoubtedly positive thing, it’s left many employees scratching their heads.

What, exactly constitutes sexual harassment? Have you ever been unwittingly guilty of it? And where’s the line between colleagues bonding and misconduct?

According to the federal Sex Discrimination Act, sexual harassment occurs when a person makes an unwelcome sexual advance or request for sexual favours, or engages in unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature, in relation to the person harassed.

Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins says the recent “avalanche” of allegations out of Hollywood has given people a, “better understanding of what sexual harassment is, how commonly it occurs, and of the damage it can do to victims”.

“In the 2016/17 reporting year the Australian Human Rights Commission received 247 complaints alleging sexual harassment,” Ms Jenkins says.

“This represents a 13 per cent increase on the previous reporting period. Although the majority of complaints we receive are conciliated successfully, we know that these 247 complaints are barely the tip of the iceberg.”

Importantly, Ms Jenkins points out employers are liable for the conduct of their employees, “unless they can show they took reasonable precautions to prevent the sexual harassment occurring”. 

To get a definitive guide of what is and isn’t acceptable, The New Daily spoke to Yvonne Collier, assertive skills expert at Maddison Training, who runs workshops to help companies and individuals manage harassment in the workplace.


Compliments on appearance, personality or anything outside of someone’s professional capacity are risky.

“It doesn’t really matter what the intention is, it only matters how the other person feels,” Mrs Collier explains, “I’d avoid personal compliments.”

Instead, if you feel the urge to compliment someone, stick to work-specific performance comments.

“To be really effective it needs to be specific,” Mrs Collier says. “Like, ‘Thank you so much for getting the report in on time it let me get my work done quickly’.”

Physical contact

This is “more or less” a no-go, aside from the traditional handshake, Mrs Collier says.

While you may assume your colleagues are comfortable with friendly physical interaction, new additions to the staff may not feel the same way. Best to tread carefully and keep your hands to yourself.

Personal questions

Asking people things like whether they have a partner or whether they get along with their parents may seem innocent, but increasingly it should be something you approach with caution.

“It would be very sad if water cooler conversations couldn’t happen, but it comes back to emotional intelligence and being aware of how your communication is affecting the other person,” Mrs Collier says.

If you realise you’ve overstepped a boundary, the best thing to do is address it immediately.

“Nip it in the bud by saying, ‘My intention was to compliment you but I can see I’ve made you uncomfortable and for that I’m sorry’,” Mrs Collier suggests.

Social media

“If in doubt, don’t do it,” is Mrs Collier’s motto.

Sometimes, it might not be you who’s making things awkward, but rather an over-sharing colleague inundating you with personal information.

“Unfriend, unfollow or block,” Mrs Collier advises, “But also have a conversation and tell them it’s inappropriate.”

After-work drinks

While it may feel like you can let your hair down at Friday night drinks, Mrs Collier says you’re still “on”.

“You’ve got to be aware of what you’re doing,” Mrs Collier warns, which means not too many alcoholic drinks.

Additionally, “it might be wise to avoid taking photos with colleagues”, Mrs Collier says. “They might have severe consequences down the line.”

Office romance

Should you get into a romantic relationship with a co-worker, the best thing to do is let a senior employee (most offices have a go-to person) know as soon as possible, Mrs Collier says.

“That way if it goes sour you have a manager as a witness and a mediator.”

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