What is sexual harassment?
Sexual harassment is any unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature (including touching, sexual comments, requests or demands for sexual favours, and sexual assault) that happens in circumstances which might humiliate, offend or intimidate the person being harassed.
The key feature that distinguishes sexual harassment from conduct that is similar but ok, is that sexual harassment is unwelcome and it happens in circumstances that make it potentially harmful.
Who is affected by sexual harassment?
Whilst more women are sexually harassed, it can happen to anyone. Specific groups, such as trans women, gay men, older women and young women/girls, hospitality and care workers may be especially targeted in particular environments and experience additional barriers to speaking up.
Sexual harassment is sometimes related to sexual attraction and a refusal to accept rejection. More commonly however it is bullying behaviour, or an abuse of power.
Is it only unlawful at work?
No. In Queensland sexual harassment is unlawful everywhere including at work, but also at school, on the street, in shops and bars.
If a person who engages in sexual harassment is at work when they do it, their employer might also be responsible for the worker’s misbehaviour – unless they took reasonable steps to prevent it.
What if it’s just a joke?
Laughing about humiliating someone generally makes it worse for the person being targeted. If a sexual joke, teasing or ‘banter’ is unwelcome, and occurs in circumstances that might offend or harm someone, it’s probably sexual harassment.
The experience of the person being harassed is more important than the intention of the person engaging in the harassment.
How can I complain about sexual harassment?
If you have been sexually harassed you have a range of options.
You could complain directly to the person who has harassed you if it’s safe to do so. This is only recommended in very ‘low level’ situations in which you feel absolutely safe.
Formal complaints can be made to the Queensland Human Rights Commission within one year from the date of the sexual harassment, or the Australian Human Rights Commission within six months from the date of the sexual harassment. Choosing which formal complaint option is best can be complicated. For example the Queensland law applies in more places, including private places and on the street, but the Australian law places greater responsibilities onto employers. It is important to get legal advice before making a formal complaint.
If the sexual harassment is ongoing take notes of dates, time, witnesses and details about the conduct including the words that were said. If there are other records, such as text messages, be sure to capture those and keep them secure.
If you have been sexually assaulted, no matter where or when it happened, you can also make a complaint to police. In an emergency call 000.
What if it happens at work?
In addition to the above options many workplaces have a sexual harassment policy with a complaint process. Be aware that even though many employers expect employees to use internal complaint processes if they are harassed you should only do so if it safe. An internal complaint is not a compulsory step before a formal process, although it may be the quickest means of stopping ongoing sexual harassment. Using internal processes can also help preserve employment relationships in many situations.
You are protected by law when you make complaints at work, including about sexual harassment. However, in some workplaces there is a genuine risk of reprisal or victimisation when making complaints. If you are concerned about possible victimisation you can seek advice and help, including from your union, before you complain.
What outcome will a complaint lead to?
It depends. If there has been economic loss, hurt and humiliation or a psychological impact from sexual harassment then financial compensation is often very important. Other outcomes can include the development of sexual harassment policies or training, an apology, or practical measures such as a transfer or reinstatement to a role.
Who can help with a sexual harassment complaint?
Caxton Legal Centre
(07) 3214 6333
Legal Aid Queensland
1300 65 11 88
Queensland Council of Unions
Working Women’s service at Basic Rights Queensland
1800 621 458
Private lawyer referrals are available through the Queensland Law Society
1300 367 757
Community legal centre referrals for free legal advice are available through Community Legal Centres Queensland
(07) 3392 0092
13 11 14
Your workplace Employee Assistance Program, or a private counsellor (see your GP for a referral) may also assist.
You can read more about sexual harassment law via the Queensland Law Handbook online.