Safe Work Australia publishes new model Sexual Harassment Code of Practice

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Safe Work Australia has published a new model code of practice which is designed to help persons conducting a business or undertaking (PCBUs) meet their WHS duties by providing guidance on how to eliminate or minimise the risk of sexual and gender-based harassment at work.

The new model code of practice puts sexual and gender-based harassment squarely in existing WHS frameworks and section 274 of the Work Health and Safety Act, and needs to be read and applied alongside the model Code of Practice: Managing psychosocial hazards at work.

The model Code of Practice: Sexual and gender-based harassment, states that PCBUs must take a proactive, consultative and preventative approach to sexual and gender-based harassment, whether it comes from colleagues, customers or the public, and whether it’s online or in person.

“You must identify and assess the risks, eliminate or minimise them so far as is reasonably practicable, and review your control measures to make sure they’re working as planned. Managing the risks may mean changing the layout of your workplace, redesigning the work or the way you do it – training and policies alone are not effective or reliable controls,” the model code states.

It noted that sexual and gender-based harassment often occurs with other psychosocial hazards and PCBUs must consider the interaction between these hazards when managing risks to the health and safety of workers and others.

Similarly, intersectional harassment can also increase both the likelihood of sexual and gender-based harassment occurring and the severity of harm it can cause.

For example, the model code noted that a migrant worker with a disability is more likely to experience harassment but may not have the same supports in place or the confidence or awareness to report the behaviour. As such they may be exposed for a longer time increasing the severity of harm.

Under methods of identifying sexual and gender-based harassment, the model code said PCBUs must consult with your workers and their representatives when identifying the risk of sexual and gender-based harassment at work.

“While past instances of sexual and gender-based harassment can help to you to identify when, where and how harassment might occur, consultation to identify this hazard should be broader,” the model code said.

“Even where sexual and gender-based harassment has not occurred or been formally reported, there may be situations workers encounter as part of their work which make them vulnerable to it. Workers may be more comfortable engaging in consultation focused on the hazard and risk, rather than past instances.”

The model code also discussed work tasks and the design of work, and said some tasks may have higher risks of sexual and gender-based harassment, such as tasks:

  • associated with sexist jokes and sexual innuendo
  • requiring interaction with customers, clients, patients or other persons, either face to face, on the phone or online
  • being performed in remote locations, people’s homes or in other work environments where access to support and supervision is not immediately available, or
  • involving attendance at conferences, excursions and social events as part of work duties, including overnight travel.

The model code also made a point of observing how workers and others at the workplace interact, as the presence of harmful behaviours may indicate a risk of sexual and gender-based harassment.

“Observe how leaders, managers, supervisors, workers and others interact (e.g. are there poor relationships or do workers avoid being around certain people?),” the model code said.

“Identify trends or patterns in behaviour that may highlight areas of concern or affected workers (e.g. think about whether a worker is performing differently, suddenly taking more personal leave, withdrawing from colleagues, not attending work functions, or if a work group has had a number of resignations).”

Interaction with other psychosocial hazards was also covered in the model code, which said sexual and gender-based harassment rarely occur in isolation from other psychosocial hazards.

“Psychosocial hazards such as high job demands, violence and aggression, poor organisational justice, low job control, poor support, remote or isolated work, and bullying may increase the risk of sexual and gender-based harassment. Workers may be less likely to report harassment risks if other WHS hazards are poorly managed,” the model code said.

Leaders have an important role in creating safe and respectful workplaces that are proactive in managing the risks of sexual and gender-based harassment.

“Leadership in health and safety is more than talking about it or making statements of your commitment,” said the model code, which noted that leaders’ commitment to preventing sexual and gender-based harassment should be demonstrated in the organisational priorities they set and the way they choose to measure the organisation’s success.

“They should ensure that WHS management and human resources policies and strategies are well aligned and appropriately integrated. For example, human resources policies and approaches to recruitment, performance management, misconduct, promotion, accountability and support will impact the effectiveness of WHS risk management,” the model code said.

“Leaders set the standard for acceptable behaviour within an organisation. They should model attitudes and behaviours that show respect for all workers and actively call out and address inappropriate behaviour.”

The model code also addressed organisational culture, and said that leadership has an important role in changing an organisation’s culture to be one that prevents sexual and gender-based harassment through practical measures such as:

  • not displaying and actively removing inappropriate images in the workplace (e.g. inappropriate calendars or advertisements)
  • ensuring the organisation’s performance management, recruitment and promotion policies and practices place value on respectful behaviour and diversity
  • ensuring, in consultation with workers, uniforms and advertisements do not sexualise workers unless an integral part of the role i.e. sex work
  • empowering workers to refuse, restrict or suspend service if people fail to comply with the expected standard of behaviour
  • ensuring managers and leaders hold regular informal or formal discussions about the importance of health and safety issues including sexual and gender-based harassment in the workplace