What is sexual harassment?
The easiest way to explain sexual harassment is to say it is
any form of unwelcome sexual attention.
It has nothing to do with mutual attraction or friendship between
people, which is normal and positive. Sexual harassment, on the
other hand, involves humiliation or offence to the victim. It's
not fun, flattering or flirting. Sexual harassment can happen
to anyone, and under the Anti-Discrimination
Act 1991, it's against the law in Queensland wherever and
whenever it occurs.
Sexual harassment could be:
- unwelcome physical touching
- sexual or suggestive comments, jokes or taunts
- unwelcome requests for sex
- the display of clearly sexual material (such as photos, pin-ups
or pictures) or reading matter (such as e-mails, faxes or letters)
Sexual harassment doesn't have to be repeated or ongoing to be
against the law. Some actions or remarks are so offensive that
they're clearly sexual harassment, even if they're not repeated.
Other incidents, such as an unwanted invitation or compliment,
are probably not harassment if they are one-offs.
The harassment doesn't have to be deliberate, it can also occur
in cases where a reasonable person would
have expected that the behaviour was going to be offensive.
Some sexual harassment, such as sexual assault, indecent exposure
and stalking is also a criminal offence.
While more women than men lodge complaints about sexual harassment,
the Act covers everyone, and says quite plainly and simply "A
person must not sexually harass another person".
Where does sexual harassment happen?
Sexual harassment can happen anywhere - in the street, at a nightclub,
at an interview, in a shop, and often at work. If you believe
you've been sexually harassed, you have the right to lodge a complaint
with the Anti-Discrimination Commission.
What about sexual harassment at work?
If you are sexually harassed at work, you are covered by the
law, whether you are a full-time worker, a casual or a volunteer,
and whether the harassment is done by a manager, supervisor or
Examples might include a woman being touched by her boss on the
breasts, being asked various questions about her sex life, someone
being sent sexually explicit e-mails, or someone having sexual
graffiti written about them in the toilets.
Sometimes, people are afraid to speak out at work in case they
lose their jobs, or are rejected by their co-workers.
How do I make a complaint?
There are a few ways to try to deal with sexual harassment.
Firstly, you can talk to the harasser, if you feel comfortable
about it. There's nothing in the law which says you have to let
this person know that their behaviour is offensive, but often
it's worth a try. Tell them what you think about what they are
doing, and ask them to stop.
Often though, this is too difficult for a range of reasons. If
it is, and the harassment happens at work, think about making
a complaint to someone in the organisation - perhaps a manager,
or a supervisor. Sometimes, there are Contact Officers who will
give you information and support in these cases. Your union might
also be able to help.
Again, for a number of reasons, some people prefer not to do
this. A third option is to lodge a complaint with the Anti-Discrimination
Commission in Queensland. You can do this whether the harassment
happened at the workplace or somewhere else.
In any case, it's a good idea to take notes on what has happened,
when and where it was, what you did in response to the harassment,
the person's name and any other information you think might be
What happens if a complaint is lodged with the Commission?
You'll need to put the complaint in writing, and include any
of the above details. You'll also need to do this within one year
of the harassment happening.
The complaint will be dealt with confidentially and independently
by staff at the Commission, and at no charge to you or others
involved. Of course, if you need to seek legal or other advice,
there might be some costs.
Many complaints are settled through conciliation, where you,
the other person and perhaps the employer or a legal rep, are
able to talk about the issues informally, and work out a solution
with the help of a conciliator from the Commission. If the complaint
can't be settled here, it may be referred to the Queensland Anti-Discrimination
What about employers?
There is a part of the Act which says that employers can be liable
for the actions (including sexual harassment) of their employees
or agents. This is called vicarious liability and employers need
to take reasonable steps to ensure that they protect their staff
from sexual harassment and other types of discrimination and vilification,
and to try to make sure their workplaces are free of this type
Reasonable steps often include writing policy about sexual harassment,
and making sure all employees, especially managers and supervisors,
are trained in the policy, and in how to reduce or prevent incidents
of sexual harassment. It is also worthwhile for the employer to
ensure that if there are complaints, there is an effective process
for dealing with them.
An employer or organisation can't avoid their liability under
the act, simply because they were not aware of the sexual harassment
done by their employees.
What else do I need to know?
You may want to contact one of the Commission offices for more
information on sexual harassment, details about how to lodge a
complaint, or to enquire about other issues covered by the Act.
You could contact The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission
on 1300 656 419 for information on federal law.
We have brochures
on other discrimination issues which are available from all
our offices or from this website.
The Commission offers information sessions on sexual harassment
and the Act, as well as training for Contact Officers, and Complaint
This information is intended
as a guide only. It is not a substitute for legal advice. For
more information contact
the Commission on 1300 130 670 statewide or Teletypewriter
1300 130 680 statewide.