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Last week the Australian Federal Parliament passed important ‘Respect at Work’ legislation. The historic Bill is a breakthrough measure for addressing sexual harassment at work. 

Australia has a shockingly high number of sexual harassment incidents in the workplace. Over the past five years, one in three people experienced sexual harassment at work, with women experiencing much higher rates of harassment. The newly announced legislation recognises that sexual harassment is preventable and should not be viewed as inevitable (or worse – acceptable).

As laid out in Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s statement “Everyone has the right to a safe and respectful workplace and the fact that workplaces have not been safe or respectful for so many Australians is unacceptable.

What has changed?

The Prime Minister’s statement (laid out below) indicates what the new laws will do: 

  • Place a positive duty on employers to take reasonable and proportionate measures to eliminate sex discrimination, sexual harassment and victimisation, as far as possible;
  • Strengthen the Australian Human Rights Commission with new functions to assess and enforce compliance with this new requirement, including the capacity to give compliance notices to employers who are not meeting their obligations;
  • Expressly prohibit conduct that results in a hostile workplace environment on the basis of sex; and
  • Ensure Commonwealth public sector organisations are also required to report to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency on its gender equality indicators.

How will employers be affected?

Companies will now be under a legal obligation to make their workplace safer and free from sexual discrimination. This shifts the model for employers with the onus now on them to proactively take action against sexual harassment rather than simply reacting once complaints are lodged.

The legislation also requires that employers create a work environment that is not hostile to individuals on the grounds of sex. This aims to prevent behaviour that may not be directed at an individual – for instance sexualised banter or jokes and displaying offensive material. Employers will be required to monitor and if need be, provide training to staff to ensure they’re compliant with the Bill.

There is a twelve-month transition period for companies to ensure they are implementing the legislation. Eventually employers who are not safeguarding their workplace may be given compliance notices by the Australian Human Rights Commission. 

How will workers be affected?

The express purpose of this legislation is to make our workplaces safer and more respectful. If companies do their due diligence and take concrete steps to implement the required changes, we should see a decrease in workplace sexual harassment incidents.

If an employee does experience sexual harassment at work, there will now be greater repercussions for the Company and not just the perpetrator.