Stamping out sexual harassment

Stamping out sexual harassment

The last few years have seen a dramatic increase in the compensation awarded to victims of sexual harassment in the workplace – and there’s a clear link between the approach taken by courts and community standards.

Today, community standards are such that sexual harassment is not tolerated and, more and more, businesses are mindful of not simply the legal consequences of such conduct, but also the potential reputational impact.

As new scandals continue to come to light, real estate employers must understand the risks and focus on preventative measures.

Importantly, employers need to take a clear and unbiased view of any actions that have allegedly taken place. This can often be achieved via an internal investigation carried out by the HR team. However, in some circumstances where allegations are numerous and serious, and have the potential to cause severe reputational damage to the employer, it may be prudent to outsource the investigation.


What is sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment in the workplace is any form of unwelcome sexual attention that’s offensive, humiliating or intimidating. It can take many forms, including:

  • touching, grabbing or other physical contact that’s unwelcome
  • making sexual propositions, jokes or comments
  • requesting sex or sexual favours
  • displaying rude or offensive material (e.g. cartoons, calendars or posters)
  • leering and staring
  • making sexual gestures or body movements
  • asking questions about a person’s sex life
  • making sex-based insults
  • sending written or electronic communications (e.g. email, SMS, Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter) of a sexual nature
  • committing criminal offences (e.g. obscene phone calls, indecent exposure and sexual assault).


Who is at risk in your workplace?

Sexual harassment complaints commonly involve alleged harassment by an employee (or employees) against another employee (or employees) or against the Principal (or Principals). It’s also important to note that sexual harassment complaints can also be made against non-employees, including contractors and prospective employees, and these also need to be dealt with.

Workplace sexual harassment can occur at the regular place of work. It can also occur at a place away from the regular place of work, where there is a connection to work; for example, at a work social function or Christmas party, during after-work drinks or while on work-related travel.


What can you do to prevent sexual harassment?

First and foremost, keep in mind that, as an employer, you can be held legally responsible for an act of sexual harassment committed by an employee when it occurs in connection with the employee’s employment. This is known as ‘vicarious liability’.

To minimise your exposure to vicarious liability, you must show that, as an employer, you’ve taken all reasonable steps to prevent the occurrence of any unlawful sexual harassment.

The adage that “prevention is better than a cure” certainly rings true when it comes to sexual harassment. This is most easily achieved with clear policies and procedures, and through the education of your employees.

It’s also important to provide channels for your employees to lodge complaints. This means you can stay on the front foot in the event there are breaches of your company policy.

Preventative measures must come from the top and, as an employer, you should take a proactive approach to implementing workplace policies, procedures and training to remind your employees of:

  • their responsibilities
  • the processes in place to quickly and fairly investigate and resolve instances of sexual harassment
  • the protections available to complainants during the investigative process.

You should frequently circulate and review your sexual harassment policies and procedures to ensure they are effective and current. You should also ensure your employees are aware of the behaviours that constitute sexual harassment and the ramifications associated with engaging in such conduct.


Template policy

You can download REEF’s template Discrimination, Harassment and Bullying Policy from the People Management System. Click on the ‘REEF library’ tab. Select ‘Policy templates’ and then download the policy applicable to the jurisdiction in which you operate.

If you want to make changes to the template policy, please contact the REEF Helpline before doing so. One of our Workplace Relations Advisors can provide advice.



If you’ve received a sexual harassment complaint from one of your employees, call our Workplace Relations Advisors on 1300 616 170. They
can provide advice about how to best deal with the complaint.

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About REEF

The Real Estate Employers' Federation is the real estate industry’s leading not-for-profit employer and workplace relations advisory association. It has more than 1600 members and subscribers across Australia.

Each year, REEF receives more than 20,000 calls from real estate employers needing help and guidance on matters affecting the employment relationship.

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