Changing the Perspective: Workplace Sexual Harassment as a psychosocial hazard

22 Jun 2020

Changing the Perspective: Workplace Sexual Harassment as a psychosocial hazard

Sexual harassment exposés have become a mainstream media focus. Headlines such as “Partner leaves firm after sexual harassment claim” and “Woman sues mining company for sexual harassment” feature on a nearly daily basis.  An increasingly dominant topic, the release of Respect@Work: National Inquiry into Sexual Harassment in Australian Workplaces has placed worker sexual misconduct in its various forms on the agenda of businesses across the nation, and brought the requirement for workplaces to better address this widespread issue to the fore.

Unsurprisingly, various Inquiry recommendations intersect with, are premised in, or have implications for WHS law, and the WHS profession more broadly.

A causal mechanism for psychological (and physical) injuries, serious injuries trends clearly demonstrate inadequateness of past WHS efforts to risk manage sexual harassment as a health and safety issue. Despite now also being explicitly classified as a psychosocial hazard PCBUs are legally obliged to primary prevent wherever possible, the WHS profession has, and largely continues to resist answering calls to step up to the plate. In a manner not unlike historical opposition to the inclusion of bullying in the WHS domain, deferral to alternative jurisdictions, such as Anti-Discrimination, remains common.

The sexual harassment genie is out of the bottle; the question now becomes, will the WHS profession provide it a place to call home?

In this keynote address, the prevailing and unhelpful WHS stance is confronted, and the opportunities presented by a shift in perspective explored. These include the potential for WHS to develop its strategic business partner role and improve its value not only through injury prevention and associated risk management inputs, but by extending its influence over other relevant functions, such as HR, and infusing itself into the upper echelons of executive leadership by refocussing primary prevention efforts in ways that make a clear contribution to wider gender equity agendas.