Legal Insights

Updates to Respect@Work Bill

By Catherine Dunlop, Gerard Twomey

• 07 December 2022 • 7 min read
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While employers have been on notice since the Respect@Work report that sexual harassment and victimisation are clearly workplace safety risks with subsequent updating of policies and training, these changes should cause employers to reflect on whether enough has been done to focus on prevention.

Employers should review their approach to ensure it aligns with best practice and where appropriate consider implementation of a formal prevention plan, approved and adopted by the Board and senior leaders.

We drafted a checklist you can use to check your organisation is up to date:


Does your organisation understand its obligations under State or territory based equal opportunity legislation and other relevant legislation (such as the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth))?

Does your organisation have up-to-date knowledge about workplace sexual harassment, including the drivers (such as gender inequality and other power imbalances), the impacts and how to identify and respond to it?

Risk Management:
Does your organisation recognise sexual harassment as a work health and safety risk? Is this recorded in your risk register? Have you conducted a risk assessment, considering the drivers, to identify particular risk areas and workers at risk?

Does your organisation consult with workers to identify risks that could exist in relation to sexual harassment?

Does your organisation have a sexual harassment prevention plan that considers the risks that exist in your workplace and how they will be minimised and monitored?

Sexual Harassment policy:
Does your organisation have a comprehensive sexual harassment policy that includes multiple reporting options?

Is the policy victim centred with a procedurally fair process that is reflective of modern practice?

Organisational capability:
Do the leaders in your organisation drive a culture of respect through modelling respectful behaviour and communicating expectations?

Reporting and response:
Do workers know how and where to make a complaint, both internally and externally?

Do leaders and managers know how to respond if a complaint is raised with them?

Are bystanders encouraged and supported to report inappropriate behaviour?

Monitoring and evaluation:
Does your organisation regularly review, evaluate and improve outcomes and strategies, including the prevention plan and the sexual harassment policy?

Employers may also want to check out the recently launched Respect@Work portal by the Sex Discrimination Commissioner also provides a very useful compilation of relevant materials that will assist employers.

Further shifts in the way employers must address sexual harassment

Changes to the obligations of employers to prevent sexual harassment, hostile work environments and victimisation were made by the Commonwealth Parliament in late November, with the implementation of the remaining tranche of 7 recommendations arising from the Respect@Work report.

The Human Rights Legislation Amendment (Respect at Work) Bill 2022 was passed in the same week as the Australian Human Rights Commission released its sobering Fifth national survey on sexual harassment in Australian workplaces, which indicated that, despite reforms:

  • one in three Australian workers experienced sexual harassment in the last five years
  • only 18% of incidents were reported
  • only one-third of workers considered that their employer was doing enough in relation to sexual harassment.

The legislative reforms represent a further significant change in the way sexual harassment is treated, with four major changes:

The positive duty to prevent workplace sex discrimination, harassment and victimisation

The new provision in the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth) (Sex Discrimination Act) introduces a positive duty on all employers to take ‘reasonable and proportionate measures’ to eliminate unlawful sex discrimination, including sexual harassment and victimisation, as far as possible.

The reasonable and proportionate measures will depend on the circumstances of employers, but it is clear that simply providing training and having complaint mechanisms may not be enough, reflecting similar duties in work health and safety legislation, some state and territory discrimination legislation and in some non-binding state and territory guidance material and codes of practice.

The obligation extends to all those to whom the employer owes a duty under relevant WHS legislation, that is, employees, contractors and volunteers. What is reasonable and proportionate will depend on the employer’s operations (the size, nature and circumstances), resources (financial or otherwise), the practicability of measures available and any other relevant matter.

The positive duty is intended to align provisions relating to the vicarious liability of employers for unlawful acts done by their employees or agents.

Hostile Work Environments

The Sex Discrimination Act now also prohibits conduct that subjects a person to a workplace environment that is hostile on the grounds of sex.

This has a broad meaning addressing where:

  • the conduct occurring in a workplace where either the victim or perpetrator works
  • the victim is in the workplace at the time the conduct occurs or afterwards, and
  • a reasonable person, having regard to all the circumstances, would have anticipated the possibility of the conduct being offensive, intimidating or humiliating to a person of the sex of the person impacted by the conduct.

This amendment clarifies the law so that it is understood that sexual harassment may occur where a work environment or culture is sexually charged or hostile, even when the relevant conduct is not directed at a particular person.

Changes to the role of the Australian Human Rights Commission

The AHRC has been given new powers, to commence in 12 months, to:

  • conduct inquiries into compliance with the positive duty, and to make recommendations on what should be done to meet that duty if it reasonably suspects there is not compliance
  • issue compliance notices to address what must be done to meet that positive duty, and, where appropriate, apply to the courts for notices to require compliance with that notice
  • enter into enforceable undertakings, and
  • undertake inquiries into systemic or suspected unlawful discrimination, where it ‘affects a group of people and is continuous, repetitive or forms a pattern’.

Class Actions

The last substantive change relates to the power for representative bodies, including unions, to bring representative actions in the federal courts.

Read more articles from the Employment, Safety & People, 2022 Year in Review

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