Sexual harassment in the workplace

Everyone has the right to a workplace that is safe and free from sexual harassment. Employers have an obligation to manage the health and safety risks of workplace sexual harassment.

We have information for people who may have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace and for employers, including about protections from sexual harassment, prevention and managing sexual harassment in the workplace.

What is sexual harassment?

Under the Fair Work Act, sexual harassment is:

  • an unwelcome sexual advance
  • an unwelcome request for sexual favours
  • other unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature in relation to another person.

To be sexual harassment, it has to be reasonable to expect that there is a possibility that the person being harassed would be offended, humiliated or intimidated by the behaviour. This means that whether behaviour is sexual harassment depends on how a reasonable person would interpret the behaviour in that situation. Behaviour that is sexual harassment in one situation may not be in a different situation.

A person could also be sexually harassed by being exposed to or witnessing this kind of behaviour. For example, overhearing a conversation or seeing a sexually explicit poster in the workplace.

Examples of sexual harassment might include:

  • inappropriate physical contact, such as unwelcome touching
  • staring or leering
  • a suggestive comment or joke
  • a sexually explicit picture or poster
  • an unwanted invitation to go out on dates
  • a request for sex
  • intrusive questioning about a person's private life or body
  • unnecessary familiarity, such as deliberately brushing up against a person
  • an insult or a taunt of a sexual nature
  • a sexually explicit email or text message.

Behaviour that isn’t sexual harassment might still be considered bullying or discrimination in the workplace.

Sexual harassment doesn’t have to be repeated or continuous. It can be a one-off incident. Sexual harassment in connection to employment can be considered serious misconduct and can be a valid reason for dismissal.

Find out more information about:

Some forms of sexual harassment could constitute criminal offences and should be reported to the police.

Bullying in the workplace

Bullying happens at work when:

  • a person or group of people repeatedly behave unreasonably towards another worker or a group of workers
  • the behaviour creates a risk to health and safety.

Some forms of sexual harassment can also be considered bullying if the behaviour is repeated or continuous.

Find out more at Bullying in the workplace.

Discrimination in the workplace

Sexual harassment is different to discrimination. Both are prohibited under a range of anti-discrimination laws.

The Fair Work Act prohibits an employer from taking adverse action against an employee for discriminatory reasons, including their sex, race, religion or gender. Sexual harassment doesn't have to relate to the characteristics of the person being harassed. Adverse action can include firing or demoting someone.

Adverse action doesn’t have to have happened for sexual harassment to occur.

Find out more at Protections from discrimination at work.

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Protection from sexual harassment in the workplace

Everyone has the right to a workplace that is safe and free from sexual harassment.

Protections under the Fair Work Act

The laws to stop sexual harassment under the Fair Work Act only apply to certain workers in Australia. A worker includes:

  • an employee
  • a contractor or subcontractor
  • an outworker
  • an apprentice or a trainee
  • an intern
  • a student gaining work experience
  • some volunteers.

The Fair Work Commission (FWC) is the national workplace relations tribunal that deals with applications to stop sexual harassment at work under the Fair Work Act. Eligible workers who believe they’ve been sexually harassed at work can make these applications from 11 November 2021.

The FWC will have more information about eligibility and making these applications soon.

Protections under work health and safety laws

A person conducting a business or undertaking, such as an employer, has a duty to manage the health and safety risks of workplace sexual harassment. More information and resources are available from Safe Work Australia external-icon.png about what sexual harassment can look like and how to prevent and respond to reports of sexual harassment in the workplace under work health and safety laws.

Each state and territory has a workplace health and safety body that can provide advice and assistance about workplace sexual harassment. For contact information, go to list of work health and safety regulators.

Protections under other laws

There are also a range of anti-discrimination laws that prohibit sexual harassment. The Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) external-icon.png accepts complaints about sexual harassment and sex-based discrimination. You could also contact your relevant state or territory anti-discrimination body.

Source reference: Fair Work Act 2009 s.789FA - 789FI external-icon.png.

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Managing sexual harassment

Workplaces can help prevent sexual harassment by:

  • creating a safe physical and online working environment
  • providing information, instruction, training and support about the importance of preventing and addressing sexual harassment in the workplace
  • addressing unwanted or offensive behaviour early
  • encouraging reporting of sexual harassment and having effective complaints procedures.

More information and resources are available about how to prevent and respond to reports of sexual harassment in the workplace from:

Sexual harassment in the course of employment is considered serious misconduct and can be a valid reason for dismissal.

Find out more information about:

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Where to get workplace help

For employees

In the workplace

If you think sexual harassment has happened (or is happening) at your workplace, you can talk to:

  • a supervisor or manager
  • a health and safety representative
  • the human resources department
  • a union
  • a lawyer.

To find your industry’s union, visit Unions and employer associations.

Fair Work Commission

You can get one hour of free legal advice (if you’re eligible) about applying to stop sexual harassment through the FWC’s Workplace Advice Service external-icon.png.

Australian Human Rights Commission

The Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) external-icon.png accepts complaints about workplace sexual harassment, and other forms of harassment or discrimination covered by federal discrimination laws including sex, disability, race and age discrimination. The AHRC also has specific complaint handling functions for complaints about discrimination on the basis of irrelevant criminal record and religious belief discrimination in employment. The AHRC uses conciliation between parties to reach a resolution.

Other bodies

You can also act by contacting:

These state and territory bodies can provide:

  • advice and assistance about workplace sexual harassment
  • appropriate referrals to other bodies.

For employers

Preventing sexual harassment at work

Read:

Visit your relevant state or territory anti-discrimination body.

Fair Work Commission

Small businesses may be eligible for free legal advice through the FWC's Workplace Advice Service external-icon.png.

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Support services

If you feel unsafe now, phone 000.

If there is no immediate danger but you need police assistance, phone 131 444.

You can contact the police about any assault that may involve criminal conduct.

Contacting the police

Some forms of sexual harassment are criminal conduct.

If you have experienced sexual assault and feel you would like to make a complaint or report to the police, click here for the relevant state and territory police contacts external-icon.png.

Sexual assault support services

If you have experienced sexual assault or sexual harassment and feel you would like to speak to someone for support or information, 1800RESPECT (Phone: 1800 737 732) can provide counselling 24-hours a day, 7 days a week.

Mental health support services

Lifeline

24-hour crisis support and suicide prevention.
Ph: 13 11 14
Website: www.lifeline.org.au/

Beyondblue

Mental health support.
Ph: 1300 224 636
Website: www.beyondblue.org.au/

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