Transforming workplace responses to prevent sexual harassment

4 minute read  08.12.2023 Amanda Watt, Jennifer Bourke

A recent Champions of Change Coalition report outlines a new way of thinking about how organisations can transform their response and reporting systems to provide safe workplaces and prevent sexual harassment and related unlawful behaviours in workplaces.


Key takeouts


  • The Champions of Change Coalition released a new report in November: Building confidence and trust in workplace responses to sexual harassment.
  • The report outlines specific measures organisations can take to support the systemic prevention of this unlawful behaviour, by focusing on building trust and confidence in workplace reporting and response systems.
  • The report will assist organisations to implement practical and meaningful changes to provide safe workplaces, and satisfy their positive duty to prevent sexual harassment and related unlawful behaviours, consistently with the expectations of the AHRC.

The Champions of Change Coalition recently released a new report: Building confidence and trust in workplace responses to sexual harassment. This resource comes at an important time to support employers in taking practical and impactful steps to fulfil their positive duty to take reasonable and proportionate steps to eliminate, as far as possible, sexual harassment and related unlawful behaviour in workplaces.

Limitations in existing response and reporting systems for managing sexual workplace harassment

Traditionally, reporting systems to raise concerns about these unlawful behaviours have often defaulted to investigations, been legalistic, slow, and experienced by participants as lacking care and humanity. In some cases they have caused further harm. As the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has noted, traditional reporting and response systems are beset by those impacted:

  • lacking confidence that their concerns will be managed effectively;
  • feeling inadequately supported;
  • being unclear about the process; and
  • fearing being re-traumatised during the process.

This has contributed to the significant under-reporting of sexual harassment in Australia, as set out in the Information Guide on the Positive Duty under the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth).

Building trust and confidence in workplace reporting and response systems is critical to the systemic prevention of sexual harassment and related unlawful behaviours. When those in the workplace trust the process for raising concerns, and do so, employers can understand the prevalence of these behaviours in their workplace, and take – and be seen to take – appropriate response action. These unlawful behaviours are then prevented over time because everyone in the workplace understands that the issue is taken seriously, and that appropriate action will be taken if these behaviours occur.

Recommendations for responding to workplace sexual harassment

The Champions of Change Coalition's report outlines practical steps that organisations can take to develop more person-centred, trauma-informed, safe and fair approaches when responding to workplace sexual harassment and related unlawful behaviours. The Coalition has defined these approaches as we set out below:

Person-centred

  • Putting the individual impacted by sexual harassment at the centre of any response to the behaviour. It is about listening to and supporting people.
  • A person-centred approach keeps the person at the centre of decision making and planning and gives that person choices about how the organisation should respond.
  • A person-centred approach also recognises that the affected person will share their experience when they feel comfortable, and that it may take them time to process what has happened to them and feel ready to talk.

Trauma-informed

  • A trauma-informed response means understanding how exposure to emotionally disturbing and/or physically threatening events can affect a person psychologically.
  • A trauma-informed response prioritises making people feel safe to disclose their experience and offers choice and control over the process. It requires moving away from processes that focus primarily on whether unlawful behaviour has or hasn’t occurred, and toward ones that address and remedy the impact of harmful behaviour on people, acknowledging that past and present trauma inform that impact.
  • A trauma-informed approach is respectful of cultural background and aware that aspects of a person’s identity may affect how they respond to workplace sexual harassment.

Safe and Fair

  • A safe and fair response means there is care for both parties without compromise to process. It recognises that, when sexual harassment takes place at work, workplaces have obligations to ensure their response protects the health and safety of the person reporting the incident and all others impacted by it.
  • Workplaces also need to take actions to prevent reoccurrence, and to fulfil legal obligations to ensure procedural fairness for those who are accused of sexual harassment and that their workplaces are safe and healthy for all employees. A safe and fair response ensures accountability but has proportionate actions and outcomes.

Addressing the deficiencies of current approaches to achieve long-term prevention

The measures outlined in the Champions of Change Coalition's report address the deficiencies of current approaches and support the long-term prevention of these harmful behaviours. The practical guidance focuses on how organisations can provide support and multiple reporting options, how to equip those receiving reports and disclosures, and outlines a range of resolution options, with the focus on early interventions managed by appropriately skilled people. Importantly, this resource aligns with the AHRC's expectations when it comes to employers satisfying their positive duty.

In its guidelines released in August, the AHRC has prescribed seven standards and four guiding principles, to which the AHRC will have regard when assessing compliance with the positive duty. The AHRC's compliance powers under the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth) commence on 12 December 2023.

Standard 6 relates to Reporting and Response. It sets out the AHRC's expectation that employers will ensure there are appropriate options for reporting and responding to these unlawful behaviours, which are:

  • regularly communicated to those impacted;
  • consistent and timely;
  • person-centred and trauma-informed in their execution to prevent further harm and victimisation; and
  • consistent and proportionate in determining consequences.

Response options can be formal or informal, internal or external, regardless of whether or not concerns are raised in a formal report.

Creating and maintaining a workplace culture and a working environment that is free from harm is key to a flourishing and productive workplace. This new report from the Champions of Change Coalition will assist organisations to implement practical and meaningful changes to achieve a safe workplace, and satisfy its positive duty consistently with the expectations of the Australian Human Rights Commission.


Please reach out if you would like to discuss the report and the implementation of its recommendations.

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