The information in this article is general in nature and does not constitute legal advice.

To prevent sexual harassment, employers must treat sexual harassment as a workplace health and safety issue. This involves identifying and addressing the risks specific to a workplace.

Respect@Work[1] adopts the Safe Work Australia framework for risk management and applies it specifically to sexual harassment. The framework consists of four steps: identifying the hazards, assessing the associated risks, implementing control measures to eliminate or minimise risks, and regularly reviewing control measures to ensure they remain effective.

Step 1: Identifying the Hazards

Every workplace has environmental, cultural and social risks for sexual harassment. A summary of potential risks can be found in Safe Work Australia’s 2021 ‘Preventing workplace sexual harassment: National guidance material’ (Safe Work National Guidance). [2]

Employers must consult with staff as part of this process. Involving staff in identifying risks and developing controls will help build staff buy-in and a more robust risk management approach. Consultation with workers should include engagement with a diverse group from different divisions, levels, demographic characteristics, shift distributions and geographical locations, and include Health and Safety Representatives/Committees.

Consultation activities may involve focus groups or small groups from different business units, surveys, team meetings or toolbox meetings, individual conversations with people, regular ‘floor walks’, and talking to workers. Employers should also collaborate with other businesses with which their workers interact to exchange information on strategies to prevent sexual harassment and work together in a cooperative and coordinated way to address risks and respond to incidents.

In addition to worker consultation, it may be useful to walk through and assess the physical work environment, assess the online working environment, consider work systems and practices, and observe the culture of the workplace including how leaders, managers, supervisors, workers and customers/clients interact.

Employers can also carry out confidential anonymous worker surveys; review underperformance, absenteeism, and turnover data; conduct worker exit interviews and surveys; consult with worker representatives; and review uniforms, industry data, worker demographics, and grievance data.

Step 2: Risk Assessment

When assessing risks, consideration is given to the nature and intensity of the risk; the frequency of occurrence of the risk; the seriousness of the likely impact of the risk; the prevalence, impact, and context of past employer incidents involving the risk; and industry data about the risk.

Organisations should consider the likelihood and potential impact of sexual harassment due to the identified risk and not just base their assessment on reported conduct. This recognises that many incidents go unreported and also increases the organisation’s ability to control risks before they cause harm.

Step 3: Implementing control measures to eliminate or minimise risks

Once employers have identified and assessed risks, they must put control measures in place to eliminate or minimise risks so far as is reasonably practicable.

What control measures are reasonably practicable to prevent sexual harassment will vary across workplaces. Determining what controls to implement involves consideration of the likelihood and degree of harm, control measures available, and costs, and whether any control measures introduce new risks to health and safety. It is important to consult with workers, particularly those most impacted.

Control measures include both preventative controls designed to eliminate or minimise the drivers of sexual harassment and prevent sexual harassment from occurring; and responsive controls designed to eliminate or minimise further harm if sexual harassment occurs.

Step 4: Regularly review control measures to ensure they remain effective

Regular and ongoing evaluation of risks and controls is important for ensuring an organisation’s efforts are effective and for fostering stakeholder trust.

Reviews should be conducted:

  • at regular intervals following a formal schedule,
  • when there are changes to workplaces such as new suppliers or leadership,
  • when new risks are identified, and
  • after every reported incident.

Reviews should encompass risk factors, mitigating controls, and the response to incidents. Input should be sought from those affected.

The results of the risk analysis would ideally be documented in a risk register recording the risks, analysis, controls, ownership of actions and review dates.

Culture Plus Consulting can support you in meeting your positive duty through workplace culture reviews, risk assessment, learning and development, and advice. Email for details.