How to take the lead on preventing sexual harassment: a guide for NFPs

Sexual assault and sexual harassment accusations in our federal parliament have recently thrown the spotlight on the failure of the Morrison government to ensure the safety and dignity of women working in parliament.

More broadly – and sadly – sexual harassment is a risk in almost every workplace. It can cause significant physical and psychological harm to victims – and also to people who witness it.

While all workplaces have a legal and moral duty duty to protect the safety of their employees, for NPF organisations – where women are traditionally are over-represented within the workforce – the push to create safer and more respectful workplaces is an opportunity to show strong leadership as employers.

So what can you do to ensure your organisation is creating a safe, affirming and positive environment for all staff?

Safe Work Australia (SWA) has some answers in its recently released Preventing Workplace Sexual Harassment guide.

SWA suggests that most sexual harassment should be preventable with good workplace practices. To eliminate or minimise the health and safety risks of sexual harassment in the workplace, SWA suggests a risk management process to:

  • Identify the hazards 
  • Assess the associated risks 
  • Implement control measures to eliminate or minimise risks, and 
  • Regularly review control measures to ensure they remain effective.

Based on this process, here are six practical recommendations from the Safe Work Australia Guide that you can implement in your NFP to build a safer workplace culture that doesn’t tolerate sexual harassment:

1. Identify the risks

There are a variety of things that can place people in your workplace more at risk of harassment. The first step to stopping harassment is to identify any factors that might be contributing to harassment in your workplace. SWA identifies these ten potential areas of risk for organisations:

  • Lack of diversity: Is your workforce dominated by one gender, age group, race or culture 
  • Power imbalances: Does one gender hold most of the management and decision-making positions?
  • Too much hierarchy: More hierarchical organisations are more at risk, for example organisations with multiple layers of middle management.
  • A culture where disrespect is accepted or ignored: Do small acts of disrespect or inequality get ignored in teams within your NFP? Are inappropriate behaviours not taken seriously? 
  • Use of alcohol in a work context: As well as attendance at social events being required as part of work duties.
  • Staff working in isolated locations: For example, support workers who need to work in clients’ homes with limited supervision.
  • Staff working from home: Online meetings are by their nature closed, so can provide an opportunity for sexual harassment to occur unobserved.
  • Staff working 1-on-1 with clients or members of the public: This can provide an opportunity for third-party sexual harassment.
  • Leaders’ lack of understanding of sexual harassment: If leaders don’t understand what drives harassment, it’s less likely they’ll act to reduce the risk of it

2. Be aware of vulnerable groups. 

While anyone can be sexually harassed, some groups are much more likely than others to experience it; and for it to disproportionately affect their mental wellbeing and career progression. 

As well as women – who make up 4 out of 5 workers in the community sector – other vulnerable groups include workers: aged under 30; LGBTIQA+; with a disability; Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander; CALD; and people with insecure work conditions such as casual or part-time workers, migrant workers and people holding temporary visas.

Workers falling into multiple vulnerable categories are more likely to experience negative consequences as a result of being harassed and are less likely to report sexual harassment. This puts the onus on organisations to ensure these groups are protected.

3. Control the physical the risks

Many of the risks above are impossible to eliminate – for example, if your staff need to work directly with clients, there will always be a risk of harassment.

But most risks can be minimised if not eliminated. 

One idea that SWA suggests for reducing risk within your physical workspace is to conduct a walk-around of your space to identify some simple, low-cost actions you can take to make your workplace safer. Consider:

  1. Amenities. Ensure change rooms and toilets are private and can be fully secured.
  2. Lighting and security. Key areas should be well lit and have good surveillance e.g. fire stairs, car parks. 
  3. Visibility. Improve natural surveillance of areas such as store rooms, offices and other secluded areas by installing features such as semi-opaque glass or screens.
  4. Locks. Ensure there are no areas where workers can become trapped – such as rooms with keyed locks.  
  5. Communications. Provide good access to phones, intercoms or duress alarms.
  6. Travel. Ensure safe working practices for car travel, conferences, off-site meetings and other situations where workers may be outside their usual working environment.

4. Have clear policies

It’s every organisation’s responsibility to create a healthy and respectful culture where sexual harassment will not be tolerated. And a good place to start is clearly setting out what the standards in your workplace are.

So if you don’t already have clear policies and procedures around sexual harassment in place, an employee code of conduct is a great place to start. 

An employee code of conduct establishes legally-binding behavioural and ethical standards for employees inside and outside the workplace. Not only does it create standards for ethical and professional conduct, but it protects your organisation in the situation that you need to dismiss a staff member due to harassment.

A more specific sexual harassment policy can also be valuable. SWA suggests that any such policy should include:

  • A definition of sexual harassment and recognition that sexual harassment is unlawful;
  • Examples of types of behaviours that are and are not allowed;
  • A clear statement that sexual harassment will not be tolerated wherever and whenever it takes place, including from third-parties such as clients or customers;
  • Workplace standards about behaviours, attitudes and language that disrespects or excludes people based on gender, gender identity, sexual orientation or assumptions about dominant gender stereotypes and socially prescribed gender roles;
  • Clarity around the appropriate use of social media and technology;
  • What measures have been put in place to prevent sexual harassment relevant to your workplace;
  • The duties of all levels of staff and volunteers, including managers and supervisors, and your duties as the employer;
  • The consequences of breaching the policy;
  • What staff or volunteers should do if they experience or witness sexual harassment;
  • How and to whom any staff member or volunteer can report sexual harassment;
  • What will happen when a report or concern is raised, including keeping people safe while the matter is dealt with, options for how a complaint can be addressed and when an external or independent third-party like privin network may be engaged to investigate; and 
  • What support services are available and referral information for all people involved. 

Plus you don’t need to start from scratch: the Australian Human Rights Commission has kindly developed an example workplace sexual harassment policy that you can easily customise for your organisation.

6. Encourage reporting 

If you’re waiting for a serious incident to occur before taking action, you could be letting more subtle or covert forms of sexual harassment slide under the radar, allowing a culture of harassment to flourish.

You can take steps to address behaviour early by making sure your staff and volunteers have an understanding of their options to help them either report or respond to the behaviour before it escalates. 

This could include information on how to handle the situation themselves if they feel confident and safe to do so – SWA provides this short guide for workers (PDF) on responding to sexual harassment.

It should also include a clear and easy way for all staff and volunteers to report sexual harassment informally, formally, anonymously and confidentially.

Identify who they should report the incident to, whether their manager, an HR person or another identified person in the organisation.

And ask managers to talk to their teams so they understand what sexual harassment is, how to respond to and report it, and how reports will be handled. 

Modelling a healthy and respectful workplace culture is a leadership issue. Sexual harassment is often associated with situations where the perpetrator has organisational power over the victim. To end this dynamic, your organisation needs to take action to demonstrate that it’s serious about stopping sexual harassment.

For more information, download the full Guide for Preventing Workplace Sexual Harassment from Safe Work Australia here.

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