See, hear and speak no evil Frogs

Bullying and harassment – who’s responsible?

It seems like every time I look at my LinkedIn feed, there’s another incident of bullying or sexual harassment that is being exposed. 

Who’s responsible? Who’s accountable? When will it stop? 

Employers, businesses, managers and workers have obligations under WHS and discrimination laws – do you know what they are? Are you meeting your obligations?

Employer and business obligations

Workers are entitled to a safe online and physical working environment and employer’s have a duty to provide this. This includes ensuring the work environment is free of psychosocial hazards like bullying, discrimination and sexual harassment. 

Employers must continue to review and update risk management and safety protocols, and any training programs.

They also need to keep up-to-date with changes or improvements to health and safety, both in the profession and more generally. 

If there are 20 or more workers, employers are required to have a WHS committee or Health and Safety Representative (HSR). People often report physical safety concerns or incidents to a health and safety rep, however their role covers psychological concerns as well. 

Does your organisation meet these requirements? 

Visit the SafeWork NSW website for more information regarding the legal obligations of employers and businesses.

Safety is everyone’s responsibility 

Employees are responsible for their behaviour and actions. A worker has a duty to take reasonable care for their own health and safety, and ensure their conduct does not negatively affect the health and safety of other people in the workplace.

It is your responsibility to make sure that you and other people are safe at work.

This means workers must not bully, discriminate or sexually harass others. Workers must also follow any reasonable instruction given by their employer such as following workplace policies and procedures to prevent and respond to bullying, discrimination and harassment.

As an employer, what reasonable steps do you have in place to manage those behaviours and risks? If you have policies and procedures, how are you ensuring they’re being complied with?

What if a worker ignores their responsibilities and behaves inappropriately? What if they bully, sexually harass, discriminate or destroy the mental health of other workers?

If these behaviours are allowed, accepted or swept under the rug and not managed effectively within an organisation, employers may be liable.

Woman putting her hand up to stop
Vicarious liability

Employers may be held legally responsible for acts of bullying, harassment and discrimination committed by employees

Sexual harassment and sexual assault have been in the Australian media lately, so here’s some specific content in this area. 

The Sex Discrimination Act makes employers liable unless they have taken all reasonable steps to prevent sexual harassment taking place. 

There are two main actions that employers must take to show that they have taken all reasonable steps and avoid liability for sexual harassment.

  1. To prevent sexual harassment, an employer should have a sexual harassment policy, implement it as fully as possible and monitor its effectiveness.
  2. If sexual harassment does occur, the employer must take appropriate remedial action. An employer should have appropriate procedures for dealing with grievances and complaints once they are made.

Does your organisation do these things well? Is the focus on being proactive or reactive?

The Australian Human Rights Commission provides further information on vicarious liability

Everybody knows

If you were to go into any organisation and ask who the people are that bully or sexually harass others, you would get a pretty clear picture. Bad behaviour is known to most people in an organisation. To say ‘I didn’t know’, is often untrue. 

It’s easier to sweep these issues under the rug and pretend they didn’t happen. It’s hard to bring light to the issue, acknowledge the problem and manage the behaviours. What we are seeing in the media are the consequences of organisations and individuals that have not implemented zero tolerance for inappropriate and illegal workplace behaviours.

Sexual harassment at work
It’s gone too far

For years now, there’s been widespread media coverage and discussion of human rights in the workplace, particularly around sexual harassment brought to light by the #MeToo and #TimesUp. Media coverage makes the worst examples of inappropriate workplace behaviour difficult to ignore. We are now seeing serious allegations of rape, sexual assault and death by suicide in Australia (potentially) due to the actions of perpetrators and inaction of employers and management. 

Why does it take major issues, whistleblowers or movements like #MeToo to cause people to take action? I’ve seen this in work health and safety too often, why does it take someone to get seriously or fatally injured at work for systems, processes and actions to be created, implemented or changed?

Having the right policies, processes and systems in place protects everyone involved – but they need to be actionable, easy to understand, and training and development needs to be continual. Issues need to be dealt with swiftly, appropriately and transparently – staff need to know that they are in a safe environment and any wrongdoing will be actioned and not swept under the rug.

Does your organisation have a policy or code of conduct? Do you know what it says? What’s the process to report a sexual harassment incident and how are complaints handled? When was the last time you attended training on appropriate workplace behaviours or how to report psychosocial hazards like bullying and harassment?

How to stop it – Moving beyond policy

Having a policy is not enough. Most policies state that there is zero tolerance for inappropriate behaviours, and yet they continue. To move forward, the focus must be on proactive prevention. Employers and executives need to lead from the front. 

  • Policies, reporting processes and grievance procedures need clear, unambiguous and visible support from senior management.
  • The culture must be one of respect, transparency, accountability and safety. 
  • Recruitment needs to ensure that people with the wrong values do not join the team. 
  • Regular training needs to be provided to identify inappropriate behaviours and how to report them.
  • Consequences of inappropriate behaviour need to be known, understood and actioned.

To eliminate workplace harassment and discrimination, workers need to be empowered to speak up for themselves and each other because everyone deserves a safe and secure workplace.

Does this sound like your organisation? If not, why not?

Organisational support

I provide strategies, tools and training for employers and managers to help understand the obligations, manage the risk, protect the organisation and workers, and eliminate the 7 dark sides of work

I provide tailored training for all workers to improve workplace health and safety. I can conduct group sessions in house and online. Get in touch for a confidential chat today.

Support services

Please know you are not alone. If you need help, are experiencing distress or have been triggered by what’s occurring in the media or in your own life, please reach out to one of these organisations.


About Nicole

I make difficult communications easy and bring light to the dark sides of work.

I have over 17 years in communications and over a decade in the work health and safety and workers compensation industry including working for both NSW safety regulators. I’m looking at these issues from a range of different perspectives, including communications, media, workers compensation and work health and safety. 

I partner with courageous companies to identify and bring light to the shadows.

I provide strategies, tools, training and support for organisations to manage the risk and eliminate bullying and harassment in the workplace 🌟