Eliminating workplace sexual harassment

In December 2022, new legislation was introduced to eliminate workplace sexual harassment, sex-based discrimination, and victimisation.

This means employers have a positive duty to proactively prevent workplace sexual harassment, sex-based discrimination, and victimisation as far as possible – rather than respond after they have occurred. 

The Australian Human Rights Commission’s powers to investigate and enforce compliance with the positive duty will start in December 2023 – allowing time for organisations to respond appropriately.

Read our report to better understand the positive duty and how to respond. 

What is the positive duty?

Under the Anti-Discrimination and Human Rights Legislation Amendment Act 2022 (Cth) (Respect@Work Act), the positive duty is a legal obligation for employers proactively eliminate all forms of sexual harassment as far as possible. This involves addressing its root causes.

This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make a fundamental difference to the safety of Australian workplaces. We need highly committed and active leaders to invest in Respect@Work obligations and drive further reform.

Dr Meredith Nash
Director, Sexual Harassment and Gendered Violence
KPMG Banarra | Human Rights and Social Impact

Impacts of workplace sexual harassment

More than one in three employees in Australia have experienced workplace sexual harassment.[1]

The most common type is ‘sex-based’ harassment – acts that convey offensive or demeaning attitudes based on gender or sex.

As a human rights violation, the consequences of sexual harassment are significant, including:

  • harm to employees
  • penalties under discrimination and work health and safety laws 
  • reputational damage for the organisation 
  • loss in employee productivity and retention.

Responding to the positive duty: steps to take today

1. Understand your current state

The under-reporting of sexual harassment is common. Organisations need to investigate the nature and prevalence of workplace sexual harassment and understand its root causes.

2. Develop a prevention and response framework

Addressing workplace sexual harassment requires designing an overarching Prevention and Response Framework that addresses the underlying issues. The Australian Human Rights Commission has developed seven good practice standards that can help employers understand their obligations – including leadership commitment, workplace culture, risk controls and assessments, monitoring, evaluation, and transparency, knowledge and capability, person-centric support and person-centric reporting.

3. Implement the framework across the organisation

Once the framework is developed, it must be embedded into the operations of the organisation and monitored. This may include new training on workplace sexual harassment, building effective trauma-informed reporting mechanisms and designing long-term culture change programs.

How KPMG can help with positive duty obligations

We help organisations to confidently respond to their positive duty obligation by implementing controls and prevention measures that address the root causes of sexual harassment and create lasting cultural change.

As specialists in stakeholder engagement, we use trauma-informed and culturally sensitive approaches to engage meaningfully with your workforce. And our holistic, intersectional approach places leadership, culture and trust at the centre of organisational change.

Download Respect@Work report

Respect@Work report

Helping employers understand their positive duty to eliminate workplace sexual harassment, sex-based discrimination, and victimisation.

Download report (PDF 3.1MB)

Contact us

Frequently asked questions

What is the Respect at Work Amendment Act 2022?

The Anti-Discrimination and Human Rights Legislation Amendment (Respect at Work) Act 2022 (Cth) came into effect on 12 December 2022. It makes important amendments to the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth) which were recommended by the Australian Human Rights Commission following its inquiry into sexual harassment in Australian workplaces.

These changes have been made to provide better protection for workers from sexual harassment and other forms of sex discrimination, harassment, and unfair treatment in the workplace.

Learn more about the Respect at Work Amendment Act 2022.

High-risk workplaces: Why are some organisations more prone to sexual harassment than others?

Sexual harassment is pervasive across all industries, but certain workplace settings can increase the risk of sexual harassment.[2] Examples include organisations that:

  • are male dominated
  • have high levels of contact with customers, clients or patients
  • are hierarchical
  • are rural, regional or remote.

Further detail can be found in our Respect@Work report (PDF 3.1MB).

What is victimisation in the workplace?

Victimisation occurs when someone is treated unfairly, or threatened, because they have made a workplace complaint. This can include retaliation, bullying, or exclusion from opportunities and benefits.

Our work in this field has confirmed under-reporting is a prominent issue. Victims are often deterred from reporting because of fear the grievance will not be taken seriously or escalation of the complaint may create backlash.

How do we foster a safe work environment?

Developing and fostering a safe work environment involves developing a robust prevention and response framework to eliminate workplace sexual harassment. This framework should address the the root causes of sexual harassment. Considerations include:

  • responding immediately to the positive duty obligation
  • developing a strong workplace health and safety culture
  • using a trauma-informed approach
  • implementing systems and processes that prioritise employee wellbeing and safety
  • providing relevant training across the organisation
  • continual monitoring and evaluation.

1. Australian Human Rights Commission, Time For Respect: Fifth national survey on sexual harassment in Australian Workplaces (November 2022)

2. Australian Human Rights Commission, Respect@Work: National Inquiry into Sexual Harassment in Australian Workplaces (Report, 2020) 218-257