As new laws around sexual harassment come into force, make sure your business is compliant

New legislation requires companies to be proactive around sexual harassment prevention

As new laws around sexual harassment come into force, make sure your business is compliant

The Federal government is introducing new legislation to end sexual harassment at work. The announcement from the minister for women, Katy Gallagher, follows the recommendations of sex discrimination commissioner, Kate Jenkins, in a landmark report titled [email protected]

The changes, to be introduced under the Anti-Discrimination and Human Rights Legislation Amendment (Respect at Work) Bill, put the onus on businesses to protect their workers from harassment. It focuses on seven recommendations from Jenkins’ report including expressly banning hostile conduct on the basis of sex and requiring the public sector to report on its performance on gender equality.

The main difference for employers is that they will have to move from reactive to a proactive approach in preventing sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace.

“The message for businesses is that they need to act now. I assume there will be a time to get compliant before the legislation takes effect and before they will be subject to investigation. But during that period, they need to take steps to proactively make sure that they have assessed the risk in their business and put in place a plan to make sure that sexual discrimination and sexual harassment does not occur,” says Tamsin Lawrence, senior associate at Australian Business Lawyers and Advisors.

What that means in practice is that all businesses need to have a prevention plan. For large to medium-sized businesses, they should be conducting regular staff surveys and a comprehensive risk assessment matrix, says Lawrence. Training for all employees on sexual harassment, and awareness around the new inclusion of not subjecting someone to a hostile place environment.

“Communication around an organisation’s sexual harassment and discrimination policy should be updated: where it can be found, what it means and how investigations are run. A policy on its own is no longer enough, the emphasis is so much more proactive,” says Lawrence.

Backing for the legislation change has come from The Australian Institute of Company Directors, Business Council of Australia and mining giant BHP. Earlier this year, Westpac’s human resources boss, Christine Parker, called on corporate Australia to lead the way in protecting women in the workplace, saying companies needed to move away from reactive, complaints-based systems.

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