Empowered Employee: Your Right to a Safe & Respectful Workplace

As an employee in Australia, you have the right to work in an environment that’s safe and free from sexual harassment, discrimination, and bullying. The good news is these aren’t just ideals; your rights are protected via strict laws.

In this blog, we explore what these protections mean for you, the relevant legislation, and what you can do if you feel your rights are being violated.

Understanding Your Legal Protections

Australia is committed to maintaining safe workplaces through various laws and codes which include:

  1. Respect at Work Act 2022 (Cth): A new positive duty on employers to take reasonable and proportionate measures to eliminate, as far as possible, sexual harassment, sex-based discrimination, gender discrimination, hostile workplace environments and victimisation.
  2. Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth): This act lays the foundation for a range of workplace rights and obligations, including protection from adverse action, unfair dismissal, and a stop bullying and stop sexual harassment order.
  3. Work Health and Safety (WHS) Act (or equivalent): These laws require your employer do all that is reasonably practicable to identify and assess hazards and risk, work out how to eliminate or minimise them from continuing, and conduct regular audits.
  4. Australian Human Rights Commission Act 1986 (Cth): This act establishes the federal Human Rights Commission which receives complaints about workplace discrimination, harassment and victimisation.
  5. Sex Discrimination Act 1984, Racial Discrimination Act 1975 and Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (Cth): These acts protect you from discrimination based on sex, race and disability, respectively, and ensure equal opportunity in the workplace.
  6. Equal Opportunity Act (or equivalent): Each state and territory in Australia has an Equal Opportunity Commission (or equivalent) which hears complaints in relation to discrimination, harassment and victimisation.

It is also important to note that new regulatory powers have been conferred on the Australian Human Rights Commission to audit and enforce compliance with the positive duty – even if no complaints have been received.

Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Sexual harassment is any unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature in which it is possible for a reasonable person to feel offended, humiliated, or intimidated. Under the Sex Discrimination Act 1984, it is unlawful for anyone to sexually harass you at work.

Your employer is obliged to take reasonable steps to prevent sexual harassment and address it promptly when it occurs. This includes having clear policies, providing training, and establishing robust reporting mechanisms.

Discrimination at Work

Workplace discrimination happens when you are treated less favourably because of characteristics such as your race, gender, disability, age, or sexual orientation. Your state/territory Equal Opportunity Act and the equivalent federal legislation offers protections against such conduct. Your employer must ensure that their workplace practices, policies, and procedures are inclusive and non-discriminatory.

Bullying in the Workplace

Workplace bullying is repeated, unreasonable behaviour directed towards you or your colleagues that creates a risk to health and safety. The Fair Work Act 2009 and your state/territory Work, Health and Safety legislation defines workplace bullying and provides avenues for you to seek help. If bullying occurs, you can apply to the Fair Work Commission for an order to stop the bullying as well as make a complaint to WorkSafe.

What are your Employer’s Responsibilities?

Your employer has a legal duty to create a safe work environment. This includes:

  • Developing Policies: Your employer must have clear policies on harassment (sexual, sex-based, racial, disability), discrimination, and bullying. These policies should be communicated to all employees and be part of the workplace culture.
  • Training and Education: Regular training sessions should be conducted to educate you and your colleagues about your rights and responsibilities, and to reinforce the importance of maintaining a respectful workplace. Education includes ongoing communication with employees through emails, notices, posters and toolbox talks.
  • Reporting Mechanisms: There should be confidential and effective reporting mechanisms. You should feel safe to report any incidents without fear of retaliation.
  • Investigating Complaints: All complaints should be taken seriously and investigated promptly, impartially and follow the principles of natural justice. Your employer must take appropriate action based on the findings of the investigation.
  • Support and Remediation: Providing support to victims and taking steps to prevent recurrence is essential. This might include counselling services, mediation, implementing changes to workplace practices and disciplinary action.

What can you do if you experience harassment, discrimination, or bullying?

If you feel your rights are being violated, there are several steps you can take:

  1. Report the Behaviour: Use the established workplace channels to report the behaviour. This could be your direct supervisor, HR department, or an appointed workplace representative such as a Grievance Officer.
  2. Document the Incident: Keep detailed records of the incident, including dates, times, locations, and any witnesses. This documentation can be crucial if formal action is required. Remain factual by making a note of what happened, when it happened, the location, who was present, and what if anything was done.
  3. Seek External Help: If the issue is not resolved internally, you can seek help from external bodies such as the Fair Work Commission, the Australian Human Rights Commission, or relevant state bodies like WorkSafe.
  4. Legal Advice: In some cases, seeking legal advice might be necessary to understand your rights and the best course of action.

Australia’s comprehensive legal framework underscores the nation’s commitment to protecting you from harassment, discrimination, and bullying. By understanding your rights and your employer’s responsibilities, you can help ensure that your workplace remains safe, respectful, and inclusive.

Employers, in turn, must remain vigilant and proactive in fostering a positive work environment, recognising that a healthy workplace is not only a legal obligation but also essential for productive and harmonious work relations. It’s better for people and business.

Remember, you have the right to work in a place where you feel safe and respected. If you feel your rights or the rights of your colleagues are being violated, there are steps you can take to change the situation. You can play an important role in ensuring a safe, respectful and inclusive workplace for all.

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The author, Franca Sala Tenna, is a lawyer and acknowledged workplace behaviour and compliance expert. She is also the Founder & Director of EEO Specialists, and Online Compliance Training Australia.