Skip to main content

Putting an end to sexual harassment in the workplace

There are many aspects to consider when addressing the issue of sexual harassment and assault in the workplace. Deloitte has brought together a unique group of leaders to provide insights into how organisations can appropriately prevent, investigate and remediate workplace sexual harassment.

Unfortunately, sexual harassment in the workplace is not new. A survey conducted by the Australian Human Rights Commission in 2018, revealed that 39% of women and 26% of men had experienced sexual harassment in the workplace in the last 5 years. Of this, only 17% of people made a formal report or complaint about the harassment. This reflects a tragic narrative known all too well: workplace sexual harassment remains prevalent, poorly understood and commonly underreported.

In 2018, Deloitte’s Access Economics team conducted research into the economic impact sexual harassment has on the Australian Economy. Their report revealed that sexual harassment costs the economy approximately $3.6B per annum, with $2.6B alone attributed to lost productivity resulting from incidents.

So, what must an organisation consider to address sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment can range from sexual assaults to offensive comments, gestures or online interactions. Some forms are intentional violent acts, while others may be gendered teasing, without much thought to the offense it could cause. The intention of the perpetrator is not relevant to whether an act is harassment – it’s the impact on the other person that matters – and they should be placed at the centre of any solution.

While there are many drivers of sexual harassment, organisational culture influences how sexual harassment may occur. There is likely to be a higher prevalence of sexual harassment in workplace cultures where stereotypically masculine traits are tolerated, normalised or encouraged. Hierarchical structures, power dynamics, incentives, security of employment, gender parity, and intersections with other forms of discrimination also have an impact. It is important organisations appreciate the ways gender norms have changed and will continue to change. Some individuals within workplaces may have to reflect on their own attitudes and behaviour and come to terms with the fact that the views they hold about gender may no longer be appropriate, need to be challenged and should change.

Through the collective experience of Deloitte’s five leaders (listed below), we have learnt the following are important actions for organisations to take:

  • Investigate  all reports of assault, sexual harassment and discrimination. Organisations should conduct full investigations into allegations, placing the people who experience these harms at the centre of the approach to the investigation and ensuring their dignity, respect and privacy is upheld. Procedural fairness and other supports should also be provided for those against whom allegations are made.
  • Perform a risk assessment and take a risk management approach. By identifying hazards and associated risks, practical early action and controls can be taken to prevent workplace sexual harassment. This includes addressing heightened risk factors which might be present from both inside and outside the organisation (e.g. power imbalances, isolated or remote work, and poor workplace culture).  The WHS laws apply to sexual harassment and it is important for organisations to recognise the potential that such incidents have in creating physical and psychological risks to health and safety.  The prevention of these incidents must therefore be managed the same way as all other WHS hazards. In addition to this it is equally important to design robust end to end processes to prevent and respond to SASH and ensuring transparency of those processes for employee awareness and management’s implementation.
  • Understand the cultural underpinnings and the way people of different genders experience the workplace. Organisations should listen deeply to their people to understand the factors that have enabled discriminatory behaviours to be normalised. It is important to provide multiple channels for communication so  it is safe for people who have experienced harassment, bystanders and perpetrators to speak up and to have the organisation listen to them.
  • Set a new standard for what is acceptable. This requires identifying the broad, underlying cultural factors that have contributed to perceptions of women being considered unequal to men. Organisations should revise their policies, systems, processes, structures, worksites, symbols, norms, and accepted daily behaviours to ensure people are safe at work, when attending work functions or while they are travelling for work purposes.
  • Shift mindsets and behaviours. It is important to drive programs that seek to both educate and shift existing mindsets in relation to the treatment of women. This needs to be role modelled from the top of the organisation and includes measuring the impact of actions taken to understand how they have changed peoples’ mindsets and consequential behaviours. Measurement and monitoring will enable organisations to adjust and refine their actions to achieve the desired culture. 
  • Remediate: For people who have experienced assault, sexual harassment or discrimination in the workplace, organisations will need to understand the extent to which they have contributed to norms of behaviours that enabled such incidents to occur and appropriately compensate and support victims and their families.

In taking the above actions, organisations will be better positioned to prevent, respond to and remedy incidents of sexual harassment in the workplace. To ensure enduring change, it is important that organisations provide employees with consistent reinforcement about what the right standard of behaviour is with visible follow-through. This is a fundamental prerequisite to drive change throughout any organisation.

We know that employers can play a significant role creating systemic change across industries and the economy. By supporting new attitudes to masculinity and driving acceptable behaviour, both at work and outside work, organisations can play a key role in ending sexual harassment within the workplace.

Deloitte has brought together a diverse team who have deep experience in dealing with sexual harassment in the workplace for corporations in Australia and globally:

  • Natasha Stott Despoja AO is a former politician and women’s advocate, and until recently was chair of Our Watch – a charity working to address violence against women and their children in Australia. 
  • Kellie Properjohn has recently joined Deloitte as a partner from the WA Police where for over 30 years she led investigation units and broader reform focused on sex crimes. 
  • Samantha Jones is a partner leading Deloitte’s health, safety and wellbeing practice.  Samantha takes a WHS risk management perspective to help organisations protect their employee cohorts using guidance from SafeWork Australia (i.e. prevention and response).
  • Helene Lee is a partner in Deloitte’s legal practice and brings deep expertise in policy and legal dimensions of preventing and responding to sexual assault and harassment. She brings experience in conducting workplace investigations and driving cultural change. 
  • Victoria Whitaker is a partner and leading expert in culture, trust and human rights. She works to assist organisations shift systemic cultural issues, placing dignity and respect at the centre of solutions and rebuilding social license.