Have you, or has anyone you know, ever experienced sexual harassment, discrimination or victimisation at work?
If you said yes, what did you (or they) do?
If you said no, what would you do if it happened to you?
People react in different ways when confronted with inappropriate behaviour in the workplace. The important thing to remember is that you have options! The law is there to protect you and your rights at work.
Ignoring the behaviour is unlikely to make it stop. The person might even take it to mean you are OK with what they’re doing – which is the last thing you want.
Remember, discrimination and sexual harassment are against the law.
Bullying is also a form of discrimination if it’s happening because of a personal characteristic that is protected by the law.
It is also against the law for you to be victimised for speaking up and making a complaint about your equal opportunity rights, or for helping someone else to make a complaint.
Here are some options to consider if you or anyone you know is confronted with discrimination, sexual harassment or victimisation.
Try to manage it yourself
One effective way to take action against inappropriate behaviour is to firmly and calmly let the person know that you think the behaviour is inappropriate and that you are uncomfortable with it. You could say something like:
- "Touching me like that makes me very uncomfortable. Please don’t touch me again. OK?"
- "I find jokes like that really offensive. Could you please save them for outside of work?"
At the very least, saying something stops the person from claiming later that they didn’t know you were offended. It’s important to know, though, that some people won’t react well to being confronted, and may argue with you or otherwise make you feel more uncomfortable.
Make an internal complaint
Most workplaces have a complaints procedure that you could use to try to resolve your issue, informally or though a formal complaint. You may have received a copy of the procedure during your induction but HR or a manager can probably help you find it.
If your work has equal opportunity contact officers they will be able to advise you on your options.
Although it can be hard to speak up, if your workplace does have a complaints procedure it probably takes sexual harassment, discrimination and victimisation seriously.
Make an external complaint
There are organisations out there that can help and support you to resolve problems in your workplace.
Whether it’s sexual harassment, discrimination or victimisation, bullying or occupational health and safety issues, you have a right to speak up about your concerns.
To make a complaint, get advice or find out what happens when you make a complaint, contact:
- Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission
- Fair Work Ombudsman
- Victoria Legal Aid
- Victorian WorkCover Authority
- Your union
- Australian Human Rights Commission
Get information from the experts
Even if you don’t want to make a complaint, we can provide you with information about the Commission and its services. If we can’t help you we will try to refer you to someone who can.
We won’t act on what you tell us unless you decide to lodge a formal complaint.
See contact details for equal opportunity and anti-discrimination organisations outside of Victoria.
Bystander action – what can you do if you see something happen to someone you work with?
There is no easy answer to this because it depends on the situation. We would never recommend that you put yourself in physical danger, for instance if the perpetrator is drunk, on drugs or appears violent.
Of course, if violence or a crime occurs, call the Police on 000 immediately.
In situations where the risk of violence is low, such as someone making a nasty comment or 'joke' about someone's racial or ethnic background or sexuality at work, it can be a good opportunity to say something to encourage the person to think about what they are saying (as well as those listening to them).
Keeping it casual rather than getting angry can help – for example saying, "Why do you think it's funny to call her that?" Or "She's alright, why don't you just leave her alone?" – might be more effective than yelling back or calling someone racist or homophobic.
Often people who yell things assume they have the support of the crowd. So in public or where a group is listening to what's going on, you could say "Who else thinks this is not OK?" You can try to get others to help make it clear that the abuser is the odd one out.
If you are at work you can gather a few people who think the same way and together approach a person or group who has been behaving in a discriminatory way – this can take the pressure off you as an individual.
In a situation where you and the target may be at risk the best course of action is to not confront the abuser directly or yell threats or abuse back at them, which can just inflame the situation.
Think about how you can demonstrate to the target that they are supported. Examples of non-confrontational action include asking them if they are OK, turning your back to the abuser and asking the target to come and sit with you, and taking them away from the offender.
If you see an incident take place at work you can report it to us at the Commission. We can write to your employer and let them know that what they have done may be against the law.
Support a colleague to make a formal complaint to us. Formal complaints may go to conciliation and this can result in things like a formal apology or monetary compensation, depending on the complaint.
Making a complaint may seem like a big step for someone whose rights at work are not being respect. That’s why bystander support is important. Some ways you could help a friend or co-worker are:
- Set aside time outside the workplace to discuss their situation if they feel comfortable doing so.
- Look into how formal complaints are submitted and dealt with at your place of employment. It may be easier for your friend or colleague to receive that information from someone they trust before they lodge a formal complaint.
- Offer to attend any meetings your friend or colleague may have to go to as part of the complaint process.
- Keep anything you speak about with your friend or co-worker related to the complaint confidential.
For more information about the importance of bystander action, download the Australian Human Rights Commission report Encourage. Support. Act! Bystander Approaches to Sexual Harassment in the Workplace.
Look after yourself
Experiencing discrimination or sexual harassment can have a negative affect on your emotional wellbeing, sometimes causing stress, anxiety and depression. If you feel that you need to speak to someone about your state of mind, contact the beyondblue infoline on 1300 224 636.
Thanks for visiting the My work rights website. We hope you find it helpful. Remember, you have rights. Use them!
If you want more details about any of the issues raised on this website, please Contact us.
More information on your right to a safe, fair and discrimination-free workplace can be found at:
- Centre for Multicultural Youth
- Gay and Lesbian Health Victoria
- Department of Human Services – Youth
- Department of Human Services – Women
- Fairwork Ombudsman
- Women with Disabilities
- Youth Affairs Council of Victoria