Preventing sexual harassment in your workplace
Find out what role you can play in preventing workplace sexual harassment.
Your work, health and safety obligations
Persons conducting a business or undertaking (‘PCBU’ or ‘businesses’) have the primary responsibility for the health and safety of everyone in their workplace under NSW’s work health and safety (WHS) laws.
This means taking all reasonable steps to eliminate or minimise the risk of WHS hazards including sexual harassment. This is also known as a positive, proactive duty to prevent sexual harassment, rather than waiting for incidents to occur.
Businesses must continuously identify and manage any reasonably foreseeable WHS hazards, and address the underlying causes and harmful behaviours.
Workers, officers and ‘others’ at a workplace which may include clients, customers, suppliers or visitors, also have obligations under NSW’s WHS laws.
This includes an obligation to not harm others’ health and safety and to comply with reasonable instructions by a business in relation to WHS issues.
Officers of corporations are also required to exercise due diligence (take reasonable steps) to ensure the business complies with its WHS obligations.
Positive duty to prevent sexual harassment
A positive duty to prevent workplace sexual harassment means businesses have a legal obligation to take proactive and meaningful action to comply with this duty.
Under NSW WHS laws, NSW businesses have a positive duty to eliminate or minimise risks to health and safety, so far as is reasonably practicable. Sexual harassment is a type of psychosocial hazard. Businesses must proactively manage both psychosocial and physical risks and hazards.
This is separate, and in addition to, the positive duty under the federal Sex Discrimination Act to eliminate workplace sexual harassment.
From December 2023 the Australian Human Rights Commission can enforce compliance by organisations and businesses with this positive duty. Visit the Australian Human Rights Commission website for more information.
SafeWork NSW enforces the positive duty under NSW WHS laws and the Australian Human Rights Commission enforces the positive duty under the federal Sex Discrimination Act.
Regardless of the positive duty to prevent sexual harassment, any occurrence of workplace sexual harassment is illegal. Businesses can be held responsible for the actions of workers, agents and third parties if sexual harassment occurs in your business.
Take action to prevent workplace sexual harassment
Measures businesses could take to prevent sexual harassment include:
like any other WHS hazard, take a risk management approach and identify, assess, and control the risks and review the controls
take continuous action to learn about and meet your WHS obligations
develop policies and procedures on preventing sexual harassment and communicate them to everyone in the workplace including workers, visitors, customers and patients
regularly assess environmental risks, for example remote, isolated, evening work, and consumption of alcohol in the workplace
empower staff to refuse or cease services to customers and clients who display disrespectful behaviours
promote the benefits of a gender equal, inclusive, and diverse workplace.
In some situations, workplace sexual harassment may overlap with bullying, racism, ageism and other harmful behaviours. Businesses should assess the work-related factors to help prevent and address these behaviours.
In addition to the WHS obligations, there are other legal frameworks that relate to workplace sexual harassment including the positive duty to eliminate sexual harassment under the Federal Sex Discrimination Act (Cth) 1984. Sexual harassment is also a form of unlawful sex discrimination and some conduct such as sexual assault may constitute a criminal offence.
The risk management process for sexual harassment
Like any other WHS risks, businesses should follow the recommended four-step WHS risk management process.
How to assess and control the risks
In deciding which measures should be taken to manage the risks (also referred to as control measures), a business must consider all relevant matters, including:
duration, frequency and severity of exposure to the WHS hazard
other psychosocial hazards that might increase the risk of harm
the physical work environment (such as safety and visibility)
the design of work and systems of work (such as tasks, supervision and support)
information and provided to workers.
Responding to a report of workplace sexual harassment
Businesses should promptly respond and investigate any report of workplace sexual harassment. This includes providing support to workers.
Attempted or actual sexual assault and threats to harm someone should be referred to the police. If a matter has been referred to police, the business should still take steps to assess the health and safety risks.
Leaders, managers, and supervisors are essential in modelling a respectful work environment and should intervene early if a report of sexual harassment is received.
provide information on the workplace’s response and provide support to workers impacted
report the incident via WHS, human resources and/or union representatives
ensure the incident is managed in a confidential, fair and timely manner
review and assess the risks and identify contributing factors to address areas of improvement
- report to SafeWork NSW as a work, health and safety incident
Get advice from SafeWork NSW
SafeWork NSW is the state’s workplace health and safety regulator. SafeWork NSW can provide free advice and support to help workers, businesses and industry maintain a safe workplace and meet their WHS duties.
You can request a free advisory visit if you have less than 50 staff or safety workshop for business groups.
Learn more about SafeWork NSW’s free advisory visits and workshops.
- Respect at work strategy 2023-2027 (PDF 2.47MB) – SafeWork NSW
- Regulation map for NSW businesses (PDF 453.6KB) – SafeWork NSW
- Guide on reporting options for NSW workers (PDF 427.48KB) – SafeWork NSW
- Workplace sexual harassment fact sheet (PDF 270.12KB) – SafeWork NSW
- Poster about a WHS approach to preventing workplace sexual harassment (PDF 158.47KB) – SafeWork NSW
- Model code of practice for workplace sexual harassment (this model code is currently being considered for adoption in NSW) – Safe Work Australia