Risk factors for sexual harassment in the workplace

Examine the environments that foster workplace misconduct. Learn about the five leading risk factors and the steps to prevent sexual harassment.
Risk factors for sexual harassment in the workplace

Understanding workplace sexual harassment

Sexual harassment is defined as any unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature that could offend, humiliate, or intimidate the person on the receiving end. This conduct may range from explicit sexual comments or advances to subtle insinuations linked to workplace benefits or conditions.

Forms of harassment of a sexual nature

Workplace sexual harassment can manifest in numerous ways, such as:

  • Verbal or written harassment: Comments about a person's private life of a sexual nature,
  • Physical acts: From a subtle unwelcome sexual advance, persistent request for sexual favours to overt acts of sexual assault.
  • Explicit or unsolicited material: Sharing or displaying sexually explicit pictures, sexual jokes, or content.
  • Employment conditions: Making job roles, promotions, or benefits contingent upon sexual favours.

Sexual assault and harassment in Australia: a closer look

To grasp the gravity of the situation, consider the findings from the Fourth National Survey on Sexual Harassment in Australian Workplaces (2018). Here is the breakdown of groups that have experienced sexual harassment in the last five years:

  • 39% of female workers.
  • 26% of male workers.
  • 45% of young workers aged 18-29.
  • 53% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander workers.
  • 52% LGBTIQ+ workers.
  • 77% of intersex workers.

These numbers aren't just statistics; they highlight a systemic issue arising from deep-rooted power imbalances. Intersectional factors play a significant role, too, meaning the compounded discrimination individuals face due to their economic class, race, age, disability, or other identity aspects can intensify the risk of sexual violence and harassment.

The urgency for accountability

A glaring issue exacerbating sexual harassment in the workplace is the systemic lack of accountability. Unaddressed and unchecked behaviours fuel an environment where serious misconduct becomes normalised. Establishing, communicating, and adhering to strict policies and behavioural standards to prevent workplace sexual harassment is not just best practice—it's essential in creating safer, more inclusive workspaces.

Examples of sexual harassment

Risk factors in the workplace

In any professional environment, there's an inherent risk of sexual harassment. Nonetheless, specific business structures and working conditions can amplify these risks, creating a workplace culture where harmful behaviour becomes increasingly probable.

The architecture of a workplace, its hierarchical setup, and the dynamic of employee-customer interactions all play critical roles in determining the level of vulnerability the workforce faces. Unfortunately, some sectors emerge with high incident rates. The Fourth National Survey on Sexual Harassment in Australian Workplaces revealed:

  • Information, media and telecommunications: 81% of employees reported sexual harassment in the last five years.
  • Arts and recreation services: 49%
  • Electricity, gas, water and waste services: 42%
  • Retail trade: 42%

These numbers highlight the industries where focused efforts are needed to combat prevalent issues.

Understanding the potential hazards and assessing their severity is essential. We'll look into the five major risk factors for sexual harassment in the workplace.

Vulnerable employees in the workforce

Certain groups within the workforce are particularly vulnerable to sexual harassment due to their unique situations. These vulnerable groups include:

  • New migrants or refugees whose visas are contingent on their work sponsorship.
  • Workers with disabilities who may face difficulties speaking up.
  • People in insecure work, such as contractors or those from low socioeconomic backgrounds, might have heightened fears of retaliation.
  • Workers for whom English isn't a first language, making communication or understanding workplace norms challenging.
  • LGBTIQ+ individuals may experience targeted harassment or discrimination based on their sexual orientation, gender identity, or expression. They might also fear further ostracisation if they make a formal complaint.
  • Young workers, often inexperienced in the workforce, may lack knowledge about their rights.
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders can face systemic racism in the workplace. Prejudice can often increase the risk of or augment sexual harassment.

Lack of experience and knowledge

  • The challenge: Whether it's a teenager's first job or a recent migrant's attempt to establish themselves in a new country, the lack of familiarity can make them susceptible to unwanted advances or inappropriate behaviours.
  • The solution: Implementing comprehensive onboarding programs that address potential harassment issues can be pivotal. It's not just about training them for their job roles but ensuring they know their rights and the expected code of conduct.

Uncertainty about reporting incidents against senior employees

  • The challenge: Vulnerable employees often grapple with power dynamics in the workplace. Fears of retaliation or job loss can exacerbate the daunting prospect of reporting a senior or long-standing employee.
  • The solution: Establishing and promoting anonymous reporting channels can alleviate some of these concerns. Ensuring employees that their concerns will be taken seriously, without backlash, can foster a sense of safety.

Misunderstanding of what constitutes harassment in the workplace

  • The challenge: Given their limited exposure to professional environments, some might misinterpret or remain oblivious to subtle forms of harassment. Not every act of harassment is overt, and the nuanced ones can often be the most damaging.
  • The solution: Culturally aware and inclusive training programs are essential. Providing examples of various forms of harassment and ensuring that all employees, especially those from vulnerable groups, can recognise and report such incidents is vital in cultivating an informed and protected workforce.

Diversity in the workplace

Diversity in the workplace offers many benefits, such as higher levels of innovation and the potential to capture new markets. However, if not managed correctly, it can increase the potential for harassment.

Workplaces with little cultural diversity

  • The challenge: A homogenous environment can lead to biases and stereotypes. Lack of exposure to different cultures can result in misconceptions.
  • The solution: Encourage a diverse recruitment process that focuses on bringing in talent from various backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives. This naturally increases exposure and interactions among different groups. Celebrate diverse holidays, traditions, or events from various cultures. This can be an informal way of educating others and fostering appreciation.

Power dynamics in majority-minority settings

  • The challenge: When there's a clear division between the majority and minority, power imbalances can occur. Those in the majority may exert undue influence, making those in the minority feel vulnerable or marginalised.
  • The solution: Leadership plays an important role here. Management can help balance these dynamics by promoting diversity at all levels and ensuring all groups feel included.

Risks in highly diverse workplaces

  • The challenge: While a diverse workplace brings a range of perspectives, cultural differences can also lead to misunderstandings.
  • The solution: Beyond diversity initiatives, it's essential to engage employees in discussions about different cultures, celebrate cultural events, and ensure training focuses on mutual respect and understanding.

Customer service and client satisfaction roles

Employees often face challenges in industries reliant on customer service and client satisfaction. Finding a balance between maintaining a high level of service and safeguarding personal dignity can be a delicate task.

Prioritising customer needs over employee safety

  • The challenge: When employees' compensation is directly tied to customer satisfaction, there can be pressure to overlook inappropriate behaviours. This can foster an environment where staff, fearing a loss of sales or tips, may endure unwanted behaviour from clients or customers.
  • The solution: Organisations must create and champion a culture where employees feel safe. They must educate employees about the right balance, assuring them that the "customer is always right" mantra should never come at the cost of personal dignity or safety.

Setting boundaries on acceptable customer behaviour

  • The challenge: Power imbalances can develop in specific industries, particularly where tipping is customary. For instance, there is a heightened risk of harassment in the leisure and hospitality sectors, as evidenced by the significant number of claims made by workers in these fields.
  • The solution: Clear guidelines on acceptable customer interactions must be established and enforced. Management should actively ensure these boundaries are respected, offering employees training on handling difficult situations and supporting them when they assert these boundaries.

Isolated work environments

In various professions, employees work in solitude or with limited human interaction. While there are some benefits to such work settings, they also increase the vulnerabilities to harassment.

Employees working alone

  • The challenge: Isolated work environments, whether due to the nature of the job or the location, can make employees susceptible to physical and psychological harassment. With no one to witness sexual harassment, harassers may feel emboldened, and victims might feel trapped or without recourse.
  • The solution: To protect vulnerable employees, it's vital to have regular check-ins, robust security measures, and a clear line of communication with supervisors or colleagues. Such mechanisms offer an added layer of security and provide psychological reassurance to the worker.

Real-world examples and preventive measures

  • The challenge: Roles like night-shift janitors, hotel housekeeping staff, late-night convenience store attendants, in-home care providers, and even workers in large warehouses often operate in settings where they can become isolated. Some industries, such as mining or rural teaching, can be isolated by nature and present similar obstacles. The lack of witnesses and the inherent vulnerability of these settings can lead to incidents of exploitation.
  • The solution: For industries known for isolated working conditions, such as mining, nannying, cleaning, or remote teaching, proactive measures can be taken. Measures may include installing security cameras, implementing buddy systems, providing personal alarms, or restructuring work environments to reduce isolation. Additionally, ensuring all workers are well-informed about complaint procedures can empower them to report incidents without fear.

While isolated work environments might be necessary for certain professions, the associated risks shouldn't be underestimated. By recognising the potential hazards and implementing protective measures, employers can offer their staff safety and peace of mind to their staff.

Workplace cultures and alcohol consumption

Many workplaces have a culture of socialising, which occasionally involves the consumption of alcohol, whether it's at after-work happy hours, holiday parties, or events celebrating achievements. While these gatherings can boost team morale and foster camaraderie, they can also present risks linked to lowered inhibitions and impaired judgment due to alcohol.

Increased likelihood of harassment with alcohol consumption among co-workers

  • The challenge: Alcohol, while often seen as a social lubricant, can potentially reduce social inhibitions and cloud one's judgment. Alcohol can sometimes lead to inappropriate behaviour or comments that wouldn't occur in a sober setting. In such settings, some people may feel emboldened and assume alcohol gives them a free pass for reckless behaviour and misconduct.
  • The solution: While banning alcohol at work events might seem extreme, promoting moderation and responsible behaviour is essential. Employees should be made aware of the effects of alcohol on behaviour and decision-making. Co-workers should also be trained to intervene and handle situations where they witness inappropriate behaviour linked to alcohol consumption.

Addressing the implications of drunkenness in the workplace

  • The challenge: Alcohol-induced incidents can result in legal and professional repercussions for the individuals involved. This not only affects the victim and perpetrator but can also tarnish the company's reputation.
  • The solution: HR and management teams are crucial in addressing and preventing such incidents. Clear policies regarding alcohol consumption during work events should be in place. Employees must be informed of the potential consequences of alcohol-induced harassment. Additionally, mechanisms to report and address incidents without fear of retaliation should be emphasised.

Sexual harassment can still occur in work-from-home settings

Despite the physical distance inherent in remote work, the issue of sexual harassment has remained present. One survey from 2021 highlighted that as many as 38% of remote workers still experienced harassment through digital channels like emails, video calls, and chat applications. 

The impersonal nature of online communication and the absence of immediate managerial oversight can inadvertently facilitate inappropriate behaviours. The barriers of digital workspaces don't necessarily protect against harassment. As remote work becomes more commonplace, employers must adapt, ensuring that guidelines and policies address the unique challenges of online interactions to foster a respectful and inclusive environment.

What to do if you experience or witness sexually harassment or abuse?

Meet compliance with Elker

From 12 December 2023, the Australian Human Rights Commission will have the authority to enforce the positive duty of the Sex Discrimination Act. Businesses, universities and organisations will now have to take all reasonable and proportionate measures to eliminate sexual harassment and sex-based discrimination

For many organisations, introducing an anonymous reporting tool is vital for compliance and proactively addressing sexual harassment.

Elker's anonymous reporting platform is a preventive tool. It encourages early reporting of minor incidents, ensuring they're addressed before they snowball into significant problems. Additionally, Elker provides insights into workplace dynamics through pulse surveys and employee feedback. Organisations can use pulse surveys to assess their workplace culture, identify risks and spot negative trends early on. Such proactive measures ensure the welfare of individual employees and safeguard the reputation and integrity of organisations.

Book a demonstration of Elker and see how it can assist your organisation in eliminating sexual harassment from the workplace. Alternatively, email us to discuss your compliance requirements.

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