Australian federal agencies urged to address sexual harassment in the workplace

By on 15/02/2023 | Updated on 22/08/2023
A survey by Australia's human rights commission found that one in three workers had experienced sexual harassment in Australian workplaces. Photo by Liza Summer via Pexels

Australian government departments have been asked to begin implementing policies that address sexual harassment in federal workplaces.

The Australian Public Service Commission (APSC) called on agencies to start work now, ahead of legislation due to go into force in December that will require all employers nationwide to take “reasonable and proportionate” measures to eliminate sex discrimination, sexual harassment, hostility and victimisation in the workplace.

The APSC highlighted that if the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) suspects an employer is has not taken such measures “it can initiate action to address it using its new compliance and enforcement powers”.

Though the associated Act was passed by Parliament in November 2022 and commenced the following month, new powers and functions that allow AHRC to monitor and assess compliance will not be in place until December this year.

The APSC acknowledged the transition period, but said “it is important for APS agencies to start implementing these changes now”.

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A new page has been created on the APSC website to provide the federal public service with resources to combat sexual harassment in the workplace. It noted that a survey carried out by the AHRC last year found that one in three workers had experienced sexual harassment in Australian workplaces over the previous five years, that such harassment is known to cause psychological and physical harm, and that it is often under-reported.

“Employees have told us that sexual harassment has occurred in the Australian Public Service (APS) and it remains a present concern. It is therefore critical that the APS ensures that workplaces are safe, respectful and free from harassment, and the APS leads by example,” it said.  

The webpage points agencies to the Respect@Work website, which provides resources to help organisations fulfil their obligations under the Act – it includes training and guidance materials, assessment tools, and a ‘good practice indicators framework’.

Respect@Work recommends the adoption of a new prevention and response model focusing on leadership; risk assessment and transparency; culture; knowledge; support; reporting; and measuring. Its website includes information for employees as well as employers.

Read more: Australian PM wants to use insight from public servants to drive government reforms

The APSC highlighted that, separate to the Act, there is a requirement for the heads of government agencies to consult with or report to the commissioner before entering into an agreement with an APS employee that includes a confidentiality or non-disclosure clause in cases related to sexual harassment. It said that this was to “ensure that there is accountability and assurance across the APS” in the use of such provisions.

It also noted that sexual harassment is “inconsistent” with APS employees’ and agency heads’ obligations under the APS Values, Employment Principles, and Code of Conduct.

The Foster report

The new Act follows the publication of the Review of the Parliamentary Workplace: Responding to Serious Incidents – also known as the Foster report – in 2021.

The report – delivered by Stephanie Foster, then deputy secretary, governance, and head of APS reform at the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet – was commissioned following an alleged sexual assault at Parliament House.

The government agreed to adopt all 10 of the report’s recommendations, which included establishing a dedicated 24/7 support line for staff to report incidents, an independent complaints mechanism, and the introduction of a training programme for parliamentarians and their staff.

In our Leading Questions podcast, Foster – who is now associate secretary, immigration, at the home affairs department – recounted her experience of delivering the report against a politically-charged backdrop and under intense media scrutiny.

Listen: Stephanie Foster: Stepping into the unknown, and embracing her flaws – and strengths – as a leader

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About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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