Why your startup needs a sexual harassment policy

- August 14, 2018 3 MIN READ

Soon after sexual misconduct allegations against Hollywood movie producer Harvey Weinstein surfaced, the #metoo movement against sexual harassment and assault took off. In an attempt to demonstrate the widespread prevalence of sexual assault and harassment, especially in the workplace, victims everywhere have taken to social media to share their stories and, in some cases, call out offenders.

Fast coming to an end are the days when people will simply look the other way when the boss pats someone on the backside or a worker wolf whistles when the ‘office girl’ bends over. Thanks to the #metoo movement, fewer victims of sexual harassment are likely to stay silent and simply tolerate abuse. With heightened awareness has come greater demand for employers to do far more to stamp out sexually predatory behaviour in the workplace.

So how can you ensure your business’s sexual harassment policy is up to scratch in the wake of #metoo?

Understand the law

Being educated is an essential first step to meeting your legal and moral obligations. At the heart of what you need to understand is that every employer has a duty to ensure the environment in which people work is free of harassment and discrimination. Sexual harassment is defined as any unwanted or unwelcome sexual behaviour, which causes a person to feel humiliated, intimidated or offended.   For example:

  • Unnecessary familiarity: which might include unwelcome touching, deliberate brushing up against someone or standing too close.
  • Unwelcome advances: requests for sex or repeated unwanted requests to go out on dates whether in person or via social media
  • Displaying sexual explicit material, online or in print
  • Any behaviour considered an offence under criminal law such as indecent exposure, stalking, obscene communications or assault

The Australian Human Rights Commission provide all the information you need to understand your obligations and ensure your policy and practices are compliant. Available for free download is a Workplace Harassment Policy template that can easily be tailored to your organisation.


Simply having a policy isn’t enough. Your duty extends to ensuring the policy is communicated and understood by your team.  If a member of your team chooses to breach your policy among your best defences will be demonstrating the commitment to creating a safe work environment, through ongoing education about how people are expected to behave.

Understand that ignorance is no defence. It doesn’t matter what someone understands or intends, the law holds people accountable for how they behave and the consequences of those actions.  Invest in educating yourself and every other member of your team about what constitutes sexual harassment and what doesn’t.

Know where the line is and enforce it

In most Australian workplaces banter is an important part of building camaraderie and energising a team’s spirit. Equally common are personal relationships that begin as a friendship and grow into more. It’s important to understand that Sexual harassment is not interaction, flirtation or friendship which is mutual or consensual.

Reflect for a moment on how many couples you know who met at work, or through work colleagues. Allowing people to have some fun at work and build close bonds typically matters to the sense of belonging, and in turn loyalty, they feel.

Allowing people to step over the line however and engage in disrespectful behaviour is never OK. Respect is the line. Assuming a sound moral compass, most adults know where that line is. The law requires however that you make it clear and tell people when they are crossing it.

The Australian Human Rights Commission, the Australian Council of Trade Unions and the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry have joined forces to deliver a national awareness-raising strategy – Know Where the Line Is.  The campaign’s mission is to reduce the harm of sexual harassment in Australian workplaces. Information and resources are available on the campaigns dedicated website.  Included is a resource guide for employers on preventing and responding to workplace sexual harassment.

Engage your team

Your sexual harassment policy lays down the boundaries within which people are expected to operate. The next step is to not only communicate these expectations but ensure understanding and commitment.

Engage regularly in open dialogue with your team about behaviour.  Both what is regarded as respectful and what isn’t.  Focus on why behaving with respect and decency is vital to not only protecting the rights of each individual but the ability of the group as a whole to thrive.

Set the expectation that every member of the team take responsibility for ensuring sexual harassment isn’t tolerated.  Encourage people to challenge unlawful behaviour and speak up when they witness conduct contrary to the organisation’s values.  Of course, expect that any challenge raised is done in a respectful manner.  Remind people that two wrongs don’t make a right.

Make it matter

Take decisive steps to address inappropriate behaviour. Applying consequences is essential to building a respectful culture.  As the age old saying goes ‘actions speak far louder than words’.

Karen Gately, a founder of HR Consultancy Ryan Gately, is a leadership and people-management specialist, working with leaders and HR teams to drive business results through the talent and energy of people. This article was first published on Kochie’s Business Builders.