Sexual Harassment in the Workplace: What Should You Do?

Cartoon of inappropriate man with woman sitting at desk.

One of the last things you want to hear as a manager is an accusation of sexual harassment in your workplace. Or even worse, an employee saying your company actually encourages harassment through its business practices.

This was the reality faced by lingerie retailer Honey Birdette, serving as a warning to businesses to take employee complaints seriously.

The retailer came under public fire for the first time in December 2016 when a group of former and current employees staged a protest outside their Melbourne Central store, accusing the company of encouraging sexual harassment of employees by customers. The protest was off the back of a petition started by a former employee which has been signed by more than 7,000 people.

On Valentine’s Day this year, Honey Birdette hit headlines for the second time in two months when another group of former employees and their supporters gathered outside the retailer’s Sydney headquarters. The group presented a letter to Honey Birdette CEO as part of their Valentine’s Day campaign which urged customers to “break up” with the retailer because of their alleged unsafe work practices.

Deputy Opposition Leader Tanya Plibersek has even weighed in on the controversy saying “a co-ordinated safety campaign involving workplace regulators and the Human Rights Commission” is needed.

What do employees say about sexual harassment in the workplace?

 In 2016, the Young Workers Centre Health and Safety Snapshot based on interviews and surveys conducted with over 1,000 Australian workers aged between 15 and 24, reported that sexual harassment in the workplace is “commonplace, unaddressed and preventable”.

The Snapshot found that young people, particularly young women, experience sexual harassment from their bosses, co-workers and customers, and that some believed that sexual harassment was “normalised” or treated by their employer as a “non-issue”.

Why this matters

Sexual harassment is against the law and employers are responsible for providing a workplace environment that is free from harassment and discrimination. This isn’t just important because of the law – it matters because your employees will be happier and more productive if they feel safe in their workplace.

What can you do?

There are a number of things you can do as an employer to ensure your workplace is free from any form of harassment.

  1. Have a policy. Making sure you have a policy on sexual harassment. This should set out what it is, as well as explaining this behaviour is unlawful and unacceptable in the workplace. Let employees know what their obligations are under the policy.
  2. Train your staff. Providing regular and up-to-date training for your employees in sexual harassment and discrimination. This will ensure all employees know their rights and also their obligations to the company and colleagues.
  3. Have an action plan. Having a process in place to deal with any allegations of sexual harassment in the workplace s also important. Having these in place ahead of time will mean you’ll be able to manage potential incidents more effectively.
  4. Be consistent. Your employees will follow your lead. If you consistently enforce your policies, they will be more likely to report incidents when they occur. It’s in the business’ interest to manage every report of untoward behaviour in a consistent and discreet manner.
  5. Deal with inappropriate customers. As we saw in the Honey Birdette case, part of the problem was unwanted and inappropriate action by customers. Whether you run a lingerie store or a business consultancy, your employees need to know what to do if an incident involving an external party arises.  

CourseGenius has just released the fifth course in its Compliance Course Suite: Sexual Harassment in the Workplace. Sign up to preview this course and see how you can help prevent sexual harassment in your workplace.

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