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4 steps to limit your liability to a sexual harassment claim

Sexual harassment is still a major problem in Australian workplaces.

Research shows that one in three Australian workers have experienced workplace sexual harassment in the last five years, up from one in five workers when the Australian Human Rights Commission carried out the research in 2012.

While many cases go unreported, the effects of workplace sexual harassment can still cause damage to a business. A decrease in morale, reduced productivity and toxic workplace cultures can all develop in work environments where sexual harassment is unaddressed.

But the dangers don’t end there.

If sexual harassment occurs in connection with the harassed person’s employment, the employer can be held vicariously liable for the conduct, which can be extremely costly.

A sexual harassment claim can run into several hundreds of thousands, even millions of dollars, if an employer is found to have failed to take action to prevent it from happening.

Every employer has a strict obligation to minimise the risk of sexual harassment occurring in relation to its business and properly handle any complaint that is made.

It is important to know what you can be held vicariously liable for and, in the event of a claim, be able to prove that you did everything possible to prevent your employees from engaging in unlawful behaviour.

Below are four steps you should take to reduce the risk of vicarious liability:

Step 1: Update policies and guidelines

Update policies and guidelines for sexual harassment and bystander action on sexual harassment. Documents should include what should be done by any person who witnesses sexual harassment so that it does not go unchecked.

Step 2: Implement policies and guidelines

Ensure that workers and managers understand and can implement these policies and guidelines through education and training about sexual harassment and bystander action, and promote reporting and appropriate responses.

Step 3: Activate your policies and guidelines

Ensure corporate values are aligned with policies and guidelines through action, not inaction.

Step 4: Encourage workers to tackle sexual harassment

Establish a workplace environment that encourages reporting of sexual harassment by:

  • encouraging leaders to speak out positively about tackling sexual harassment and taking bystander action;
  • providing multiple communication channels to report sexual harassment;
  • responding to reports of sexual harassment in a timely way;
  • training those responsible for acting on reports of sexual harassment; and
  • conducting ongoing monitoring and evaluation of bystander strategies.
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