Minimising the risk of harassment claims during the Christmas season

By Kristen Lopes


In brief – Employers must take steps to prevent harassment incidents at Christmas parties

With the silly season upon us, it is important to assess whether your organisation is taking appropriate steps to prevent potential incidents of sexual harassment from occurring at work functions. While organisations may assume that everyone understands the issue and knows what constitutes inappropriate behaviour, recent research suggests otherwise.

How prevalent is harassment in Australian workplaces?

The Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) released a report on 30 October 2012, Working without fear: Results of the Sexual Harassment National Telephone Survey. The report suggests that approximately 20% of individuals aged 15 years and older have been sexually harassed in the workplace in the past five years.

Surprisingly, despite increased public awareness about sexual harassment, the report suggests there is an increasing incidence of sexual harassment in Australian workplaces. Has progress in addressing sexual harassment in the workplace stalled?

Most likely targets of harassment and most likely harassers

In terms of who is being harassed, the report suggests that targets of sexual harassment are most likely to be women of less than 40 years of age, with the majority being between 18 - 24 years of age. Men harassing women accounted for 56% of reported sexual harassment while male harassment of men accounted for 23% of sexual harassment reported.

Harassers were most likely to be a co-worker of the person harassed (52%), followed by their boss or employer (11%) and their supervisor or manager (11%).

What is harassment?

The most common types of behaviour reported were sexually suggestive comments, offensive jokes and intrusive questions. These were reported to occur in person as well through the use of technology, including social media.

Other behaviours reported include:

  • unwelcome touching, hugging, cornering or kissing
  • inappropriate staring or leering
  • repeated or inappropriate invitations to go out on dates
  • repeated or inappropriate advances on email, social networking websites or internet chat rooms by a work colleague
  • sexual gestures, indecent exposure or inappropriate display of body
  • sexually suggestive comments or jokes
  • sexually explicit pictures, posters or gifts that were offensive
  • sexually explicit emails or text messages

Effect on workplace witnesses as well as victims

The AHRC survey suggests that regardless of its size or industry, no workplace is immune from sexual harassment, noting that a hostile work environment can be created not just by experiencing sexual harassment personally, but also by witnessing and hearing about sexual harassment occurring in the workplace.

Three tips to prevent harassment claims arising from Christmas parties

  • Ensure managers have recently received training on what constitutes sexual harassment
  • Prior to a work function, send out an email to staff reminding them of the expectation that they conduct themselves in a manner consistent with the organisation's policies at work functions
  • Designate managers to supervise the work function



This is commentary published by Colin Biggers & Paisley for general information purposes only. This should not be relied on as specific advice. You should seek your own legal and other advice for any question, or for any specific situation or proposal, before making any final decision. The content also is subject to change. A person listed may not be admitted as a lawyer in all States and Territories. © Colin Biggers & Paisley, Australia 2024.

Related Articles