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Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment is a type of harassment that involves any unwelcome behaviour of a sexual nature. Like all forms of bullying and harassment, sexual harassment is a known cause of physical and mental injury. It is a serious health and safety issue and can even result in criminal charges for perpetrators.

Sexual harassment can happen to anyone, but women are much more likely to be targeted.

What counts as sexual harassment?

Commonwealth legislation defines sexual harassment as:

  • making an unwelcome sexual advance, or an unwelcome request for sexual favours; or
  • engaging in other unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature;

A 2018 ACTU survey found that 64% of female respondents reported having experienced sexual harassment during their working lives. Exactly what counts as sexual harassment often depends on the context. However, some common examples include:

  • Sexual or suggestive emails, messages, gestures, jokes and comments
  • Any unwelcome touching
  • Staring or leering
  • Brushing up against someone unnecessarily
  • Unwanted invitations to go on a date
  • Inappropriate comments about someone’s private life or body
  • Insults or taunts based on sex or gender

It’s important to understand that inappropriate sexual behaviour can be considered sexual harassment even if it is not targeted towards someone. For example, if sexual jokes and crude conversation are common in your workplace, or if inappropriate sexual material is on display, you may feel sexually harassed – even if you are not being directly targeted.   

Sexual harassment is prohibited by a number of laws at both the State and Federal level, which means that small differences may occur in the definition of sexual harassment between jurisdictions.

What can I do?

Being sexually harassed at work can make you less confident, less capable and more stressed while you are at work. It can also affect your private life, making you feel anxious, irritable and reluctant to return to work. Like all forms of bullying and harassment, sexual harassment is a known cause of physical and mental injury.

You’re not alone, and there are things you can do about it. 

Write it down

Start writing down incidents of sexual harassment as they happen. Creating a diary record of what happens can be useful later if you need to provide evidence about what has been happening, and for how long – especially since you may not always remember things as clearly a few days, weeks or months later.

You should capture the following information:

  • The date of the incident, including what might have happened beforehand and afterwards;
  • Where did the incident take place?
  • Who was there, were there any witnesses (this includes people who may have seen the harassment or anything that happened before or afterwards)?
  • What was said, and by whom;
  • What happened?
  • Why do you feel that what was said or done was bullying, harassment or sexual harassment?
  • How did you feel after the incident?

Writing down the details of any incident is really important, but depending on what’s happening, you may also want to take other steps.

Tell someone

Speak to someone you trust at your work about what is happening. 

This can either be a colleague you are close to, your Health and Safety Representative or your union delegate or organiser.

Approach the person

If you feel confident, you can approach the harasser and tell them that their behaviour is unacceptable and unwanted. If you are not sure about the best way of doing this, get advice from your union delegate or organiser. Do not approach the harasser if you feel it could endanger your safety in any way.

Make an internal complaint

If the harassment continues or if you don’t feel comfortable approaching the harasser yourself, you should make a complaint to your manager. If you don’t feel comfortable talking to your manager about the issue, especially if they are the harasser, you can speak to your Health and Safety Representative or to your union delegate, organiser or the Australian Unions Support Centre to help you work out the best person to make a complaint to.

Your employer has a responsibility to provide a safe working environment that is free from sexual harassment. If your manager does not act to stop the harassment, your union can help you work out what to do next.

Make an external complaint

Depending on the nature of the harassment, there a range of external places you can go to for assistance. Your first port of call should be your union, which can provide you with assistance and representation throughout this process.

If you are being, or have been, sexually harassed, you may be able to make a complaint to the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission.  You should get advice from your union about how to do this. 

Contact the Australian Unions Support Centre  if you need assistance connecting with a union.

Note – If you feel that you are in immediate danger, call the police on 000.

Funding for this factsheet was provided by:

  • the Victorian Government as part of the uTech project; and
  • the Fair Work Ombudsman. 

Please note that the information given here is general information only and is not legal advice. For further assistance, it is recommended you speak to your union.

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