Business, Practice management

Preventing sexual harassment

In our June issue, Avant’s SONYA BLACK explored employers’ legal obligations when faced with a sexual harassment allegation. This month she has 10 tips on how to prevent it from occurring in the practice.

The old medical adage “prevention is better than cure” should always be applied to workplace health and safety, especially sexual harassment.

Sonya Black Avant
Sonya Black.

We know that sexual harassment is widespread in Australian workplaces, including the medical profession.

For this reason, practices need to build workplace cultures founded on respect and take a proactive approach to preventing sexual harassment.

Tip 1: Develop a policy: Ideally, your practice has a sexual harassment policy, and your staff have access to it.

It should be tailored to your workplace and contain:

  • A definition of sexual harassment, including examples of behaviours that constitute sexual harassment and that it is unlawful under both state and federal law.
  • A commitment that your practice will not tolerate sexual harassment.
  • An outline of the process that will be used to manage allegations of sexual harassment.

Review and update your sexual harassment policy regularly.

Tip 2: Run training and education: Organise regular sexual harassment training and education, including bystander training. You should also keep records of the training that has been undertaken.

Tip 3: Talk to your staff: According to SafeWork Australia, sexual harassment is a work health and safety issue, so you need to conduct a risk assessment to identify hazards, assess risk and implement control measures. You should speak with your staff as part of the risk assessment process because they are likely to be the best source of information about the hazards and risks.

Tip 4: Address inappropriate behaviour early: Managing inappropriate behaviour at an early stage can stop it from escalating. What you may think is harmless banter, such as sexual jokes or inappropriate nicknames, is unlawful and can escalate to more serious forms of sexual harassment. This type of behaviour can create a culture where staff do not feel safe to report incidents.

Tip 5: Encourage staff to manage inappropriate behaviour themselves: You should help staff to address inappropriate behaviour themselves – if they feel able and safe to do so. For example, employees should feel empowered to call out unwelcome sexual comments or jokes.

Tip 6: Ensure the same rules apply to everyone: Ensure that your sexual harassment policy applies to everyone working within the practice, including practice owners. Practice owners need to understand their obligations and comply with them. After all, every workplace culture starts at the top, so it is important for practice owners to lead by example. In some cultures, touching, kissing and hugging is common. This is not acceptable in the workplace, even among work friends.

Tip 7: Manage social media and social functions: Sexual harassment frequently occurs over social media and at social functions.You should inform staff that they cannot use their personal social media to sexually harass staff or patients. It’s a good idea to remind staff of their obligations before social functions and to monitor conduct during social functions. Ensure that alcohol is served responsibly and that the “work function” has a clear end time.

Tip 8: Respond to complaints right away: Respond immediately to a sexual harassment complaint. You can deal with a complaint informally or formally or, alternatively, you may decide to refer it to an external organisation. As part of the complaint handling process, you need to ensure that staff feel safe in the workplace. If someone makes a complaint, you may need to roster them separately from the alleged perpetrator.

Tip 9: Prevent retaliation: Many people are scared to complain about sexual harassment due to fear of retaliation. Ensure that all workers understand that retaliation is wrong, against the law and can lead to disciplinary action, including termination of employment.

Tip 10: Don’t make assumptions: Finally, don’t assume that an alleged perpetrator is guilty.

You should conduct an independent investigation into any complaint.

Would you like to find out more?

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Sonya Black is Avant’s Special Counsel, Employment. With over 20 years’ experience as an employment lawyer, she advises doctors and medical practices across Australia on a broad range of employment issues.

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