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Preventing sexual discrimination

It’s 30 years since sexual harassment was outlawed in the workplace, yet it’s still endemic. So what preventative strategies can be adopted to deal with offending behaviour before it snowballs?

Conduct of a sexual nature that ‘could reasonably be expected to offend or humiliate’ became illegal under the Sex Discrimination Act 1984.

Has this meant an end to unwanted advances at the Christmas party or sleazy emails between colleagues? Hardly.

Given that one in five Australians have been sexually harassed in the workplace in the past five years, it may also be happening in your organisation.

The Australian Human Rights Commission’s 2012 Sexual Harassment National Telephone Survey reveals that sexual harassment affects a diverse range of individuals across a broad spectrum of occupations, workplaces and industries.

It also demonstrated that one-third of all women and one in 10 men surveyed have reported sexual harassment at work.

While no one is immune, the survey shows that targets are most likely to be women under the age of 40.

“It happens at conferences, late at night in the office, at social events, so there are often no witnesses and if it is brought up it’s often dealt with very confidentially,” says Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights commissioner, Kate Jenkins.

The most effective strategies

Sexual harassment often comes with early warning signs that HR practitioners can detect, such as demeaning attitudes towards women or a macho culture in the workplace that can be alienating for both genders.

“That kind of culture tends to fester,” says federal sex discrimination commissioner, Elizabeth Broderick.

“If you cut it off at the degrading attitudes, you will have success at reducing the levels of sexual harassment.”

The most effective strategies that HR practitioners can take to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace start with a zero tolerance approach.

“This needs to come from the CEO, the board and all leadership that sexual harassment is not part of an inclusive workplace environment and won’t be tolerated,” says Broderick.

Developing a strong policy

A workplace sexual harassment policy should define what sexual harassment is in the context of a particular workplace and clearly state the consequences of inappropriate behaviour.

It should also include a clear commitment to gender equality by senior leaders and a promise of prompt grievance procedures.

“There must be an easily accessible complaints mechanism that allows people to raise complaints early on,” says Broderick. “It’s a basic human right to feel safe at work. People need to know that if they stand up and report harassment they won’t be victimised and that action will be taken.”

Training is also essential in communicating and implementing a policy across the entire workforce, and in ensuring that the policy continues to remain effective.

“It’s got to be scenario-based, not just ‘well, this is the law’,” says Broderick, adding that regular training can also provide updates to legislative changes.

Jenkins also speaks of a current shift towards a bystander preventative approach in sexual harassment instances. This deals with the ways in which individuals who are not necessarily the targets of sexual harassment can intervene to help other colleagues and should be encouraged to do so.

“Prevention needs to look more at the team environment,” she says. “The team is much more influential in changing behaviours and creating an environment where sexual harassment does not occur than by leaving this to individual misdemeanours that are dealt with.”

Case study: How Transurban is saying no to sexual harassment

At toll road network company Transurban, sexual harassment is never accepted and never excused. Employees know this even before their first day on the job.

Before commencing work, all new-starters are given the company’s code of conduct and equity in the workplace policy, to which they must agree to comply.

During their first week, new employees complete a range of online education programs, including an equal opportunity program, and in their first 60 days they will have completed the Transurban Induction Program, a face-to-face initiative that reinforces the company’s tough stance on sexual harassment.

“Everything we do in this area is at a manager level and an employee level,” says Transurban’s talent development manager, Louise Anderson.

“By having different layers and ongoing information and education, this embeds it into the way we work at Transurban. We also have equity contact officers who regularly undergo training on what to do if they witness misconduct or if it is reported to them.”

Transurban’s grievance policy also outlines a step-by-step response to incidents of sexual harassment.

“Often people come and say: ‘I don’t want you to tell anyone and I don’t want to do anything about it’, but because of our commitment to a zero tolerance approach we have an obligation to address it.”

Anderson says the approach pays off.

“Instances [of discrimination] are very few and far between and I think it’s because of our proactive approach.”

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