Go beyond a sexual harassment policy


Why just putting pen to paper isn’t enough to tackle sexual harassment at work.

A question we get asked time and time again is: can employers really ‘solve’ sexual harassment at work?

It can feel like an overwhelming prospect. How can you control each perpetrator’s individual behaviour? Can you really stop them? 

Put simply, you can’t exert complete control of all conduct, but what you can do is educate people on positive and respectful behaviours, create a zero tolerance environment for harassment, and support and protect victims.

For many employers across Australia, the findings of 2018’s Everyone’s Business – the fourth national inquiry into sexual harassment in Australian workplaces, and last year’s Australian Human Rights Commission’s report, Respect@Work, have been extremely concerning. In the workplace, it was found that one in three people had experienced sexual harassment.

This is clearly unacceptable. Many HR professionals and senior leaders will already be looking into ways to tackle this problem. Without action, companies will continue to lose talented employees and may face reputational issues.

The evidence is clear: having workplace policies in company guidelines are only part of the solution and not the complete answer to tackling sexual harassment in the workplace. With recommendations to change the law – by placing more responsibility on employers to create a safe working environment – more needs to be actioned in practice.

Practical actions to take at work

Listen and Evaluate

HR professionals need to review their procedures for reporting sexual harassment. Have they been used recently? If not, it doesn’t mean sexual harassment hasn’t taken place, it may mean that:

  1. Employees don’t know there is a process/policy in place.
  2. Victims are worried that reporting it will cause more problems than it solves.
  3. Victims feel there is a culture of invincibility in the company meaning allegations will fall on deaf ears. 

Ultimately, you want to design a culture that fosters a positive, truth-telling attitude without placing too much burden on employees. 

Here’s how we think you can go about that.

Firstly, employers should evaluate procedures and determine if the policies clearly state the actions that will be taken in the event of a sexual harassment claim, including how both the victim and alleged perpetrator will be treated throughout the process. 


Want to learn how to better tackle sexual harassment at work? Sign up to attend AHRI’s International Women’s Day event on 9 March and hear from renowned #MeToo advocate and former Fox News anchor, Gretchen Carlson.


Secondly, employers should review the outcomes of when the procedures were last used, from the perspective of the victim and the business. Take the time to analyse this process to look for areas where you can improve (and make sure to be collaborative with employees when making tweaks to this process).

Lastly, HR departments will need to examine if they have consistently communicated this policy to employees and if it has been integrated into company culture – meaning employees know they will be listened to and that their allegations will be taken seriously. 

Conducting an honest review of your processes and designing a proactive approach will help to support victims in coming forward.

Offer training to your HR leaders and managers

HR colleagues will need to be prepared to have difficult conversations with senior management about role modelling both respectful behaviours and addressing unacceptable behaviours.

In the words of 2016 Australian of the Year David Morrison, “The standard you walk past is the standard you accept”. 

Regular performance coaching on role modelling acceptable behaviours, and inspiring employees across the organisation to bring respectful and inclusive values to life, can be effective in changing cultures. HR plays a critical role in underpinning cultural change with an integrated approach across performance, development and recognition frameworks. 

That being said, all employees should be frequently trained on how to create a safe working environment for everyone. This should include educating employees on the range of behaviours that constitute harassment, how the reporting process works and what other external support (such as counselling) the company can provide to victims, bystanders and alleged perpetrators.  

If HR can help implement these practical measures in the workplace, hopefully in the future we will see a safer and more inclusive culture across our workplaces in Australia. 

Katie Williams is a partner for Pinsent Masons, and Justine Cooper FCPHR is the head of Brook Graham APAC for Vario by Pinsent Masons, integrated legal and inclusion services. 

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Go beyond a sexual harassment policy


Why just putting pen to paper isn’t enough to tackle sexual harassment at work.

A question we get asked time and time again is: can employers really ‘solve’ sexual harassment at work?

It can feel like an overwhelming prospect. How can you control each perpetrator’s individual behaviour? Can you really stop them? 

Put simply, you can’t exert complete control of all conduct, but what you can do is educate people on positive and respectful behaviours, create a zero tolerance environment for harassment, and support and protect victims.

For many employers across Australia, the findings of 2018’s Everyone’s Business – the fourth national inquiry into sexual harassment in Australian workplaces, and last year’s Australian Human Rights Commission’s report, Respect@Work, have been extremely concerning. In the workplace, it was found that one in three people had experienced sexual harassment.

This is clearly unacceptable. Many HR professionals and senior leaders will already be looking into ways to tackle this problem. Without action, companies will continue to lose talented employees and may face reputational issues.

The evidence is clear: having workplace policies in company guidelines are only part of the solution and not the complete answer to tackling sexual harassment in the workplace. With recommendations to change the law – by placing more responsibility on employers to create a safe working environment – more needs to be actioned in practice.

Practical actions to take at work

Listen and Evaluate

HR professionals need to review their procedures for reporting sexual harassment. Have they been used recently? If not, it doesn’t mean sexual harassment hasn’t taken place, it may mean that:

  1. Employees don’t know there is a process/policy in place.
  2. Victims are worried that reporting it will cause more problems than it solves.
  3. Victims feel there is a culture of invincibility in the company meaning allegations will fall on deaf ears. 

Ultimately, you want to design a culture that fosters a positive, truth-telling attitude without placing too much burden on employees. 

Here’s how we think you can go about that.

Firstly, employers should evaluate procedures and determine if the policies clearly state the actions that will be taken in the event of a sexual harassment claim, including how both the victim and alleged perpetrator will be treated throughout the process. 


Want to learn how to better tackle sexual harassment at work? Sign up to attend AHRI’s International Women’s Day event on 9 March and hear from renowned #MeToo advocate and former Fox News anchor, Gretchen Carlson.


Secondly, employers should review the outcomes of when the procedures were last used, from the perspective of the victim and the business. Take the time to analyse this process to look for areas where you can improve (and make sure to be collaborative with employees when making tweaks to this process).

Lastly, HR departments will need to examine if they have consistently communicated this policy to employees and if it has been integrated into company culture – meaning employees know they will be listened to and that their allegations will be taken seriously. 

Conducting an honest review of your processes and designing a proactive approach will help to support victims in coming forward.

Offer training to your HR leaders and managers

HR colleagues will need to be prepared to have difficult conversations with senior management about role modelling both respectful behaviours and addressing unacceptable behaviours.

In the words of 2016 Australian of the Year David Morrison, “The standard you walk past is the standard you accept”. 

Regular performance coaching on role modelling acceptable behaviours, and inspiring employees across the organisation to bring respectful and inclusive values to life, can be effective in changing cultures. HR plays a critical role in underpinning cultural change with an integrated approach across performance, development and recognition frameworks. 

That being said, all employees should be frequently trained on how to create a safe working environment for everyone. This should include educating employees on the range of behaviours that constitute harassment, how the reporting process works and what other external support (such as counselling) the company can provide to victims, bystanders and alleged perpetrators.  

If HR can help implement these practical measures in the workplace, hopefully in the future we will see a safer and more inclusive culture across our workplaces in Australia. 

Katie Williams is a partner for Pinsent Masons, and Justine Cooper FCPHR is the head of Brook Graham APAC for Vario by Pinsent Masons, integrated legal and inclusion services. 

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