Is the system broken?

‘The system’ is designed to protect people – at work, at home, at school, in the community. In our society, in Australian workplaces, ‘the system’, is designed to ensure a safe working environment and protect people from problems such as bullying, discrimination and sexual harassment.

There are multiple laws designed to prevent illegal behaviour and they include:

  • Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Commonwealth legislation) 
  • Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 (NSW legislation)
  • Work Health and Safety Act 2011
  • Work Health and Safety Regulation 2017
  • Fair Work Act 2009
  • Industrial Relations Act 1996 
  • Employment Protection Act 1982
  • Industrial Relations (Commonwealth Powers) Act 2009
  • Crimes (Domestic and Personal Violence) Act 2007

These laws basically say that everyone has the right to a physical and psychologically safe work environment, and everyone has the right to a fair and just workplace. Employers, managers and workers all have a duty to ensure they create and maintain a safe workplace.

So the laws and the system are designed to protect individuals – but are they?

Is the system broken?

The Fourth National Survey on Sexual Harassment in Australian Workplaces, conducted by the Australian Human Rights Commission in 2018 found that 1 in 3 people experienced sexual harassment at work in the last 5 years. This had increased from – 1 in 5 in 2012.

85% of Australian women and 57% of Australian men over the age of 15 have been sexually harassed at some point in their lives.

It drilled down into some of the worst performing industries which included 40% of people in mining, 42% of people in retail and 81% of people in the telco/media industry have been sexually harassed in their workplace in the 5 years leading up to 2018.

Sexual harassment by industry

Yet fewer than 1 in 5 people (17%) make a complaint.

Sexual harassment and assault cases are not reported due to the status of the perpetrator, the fear of repercussions or the culture of the organisation. 

When people do report it they are labelled troublemakers, bullied and ignored by colleagues, called liars, sent to another team or location, performance managed out of the organisation, made redundant or they resign.

We see this in this play out in the media and I’m sure you’ve heard it happen in the workplace. 

Reporting sexual harassment statistics
Let’s flip it

How many times have you heard a perpetrator accept responsibility, own up to their behaviours, apologise and commit to not doing it again? Have you ever heard of this occurring? Surely they can’t all be lying?

The perpetrator is considered innocent until proven guilty, which of course, should be the case, however this could be perceived that the victim is guilty of lying until they can prove the incident occurred and they are innocent.

In our current system, and in many workplaces, the onus is on the target, the victim, the survivor. Organisations and individuals are often not equipped to deal with major issues like this, so they try and sweep it under the rug because they just want the problem to go away. All this does is ends up causing more harm.

Mental health – polar opposites 

When sexual harassment and assault cases are displayed in the media, the words ‘mental health’ are thrown around inappropriately. The mental health of the victim is bandied about to show that they weren’t in the right state of mind to understand what really happened. 

Bullying quote

I have seen on occasion, perpetrators taking time off to support their mental health. Why is there such a disparity? The media bias towards perpetrators only helps to maintain the victim blaming culture we have in our society.

Is there awareness?

How do we stop blaming and shaming the victims and shift some responsibility and accountability to the perpetrators of bullying and harassment?

Believing and supporting targets and victims doesn’t mean abandoning the law. The system needs to change to remove bias, support equal application of the law and ensure wrongdoing stops. Today, this is not the case. How this happens is an open-ended question.

We haven’t got it right yet – how can we do it better? 

Education is vital

Clearly, as articles and research show, education is required. But who is responsible? It’s easy to point the finger and say it should be:

  • Schools
  • Parents 
  • Teachers
  • Employers
  • Managers
  • Workers 
  • Communities 

When we point the finger at others to say it’s ‘their responsibility’ we waste time and effort that could be targeted at just getting it done. 

What’s in your circle of influence? 

Quote - start where you are, use what you have, do what you can

We know it’s an issue – what can you and I do to make change today?

What’s your workplace system?

If you’re an employer, manager or executive – what’s your system? Are you managing the risks and can you answer the following?

  • Are you meeting your obligation to provide a safe working environment? 
  • Do you have preventative policies, processes and systems in place to protect your organisation and your workers?
  • How do you recruit people with the right values to begin with? 
  • Do you provide regular training to identify inappropriate behaviours and how to report them?
  • Do you have performance reviews and performance management systems that pick up and deal with poor behaviours before they escalate or become embedded?
  • Are grievance processes simple and easy to understand and do you act swiftly and fairly to incidents? 
  • Do you actively listen to workers through confidential feedback, surveys and general awareness?
  • Are exit interviews conducted and reviewed and are there any patterns? Do you understand that people join an organisation or a cause and leave a manager or a toxic workplace?

As an employee, do you know you also have a duty of care?

If you need help in any of these areas, get in touch asap so I can help you manage the risk, understand and meet your obligations and protect your organisation and your workers. 

Check out my recent article where I talk about employer, business and worker obligations


About Nicole

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 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. Connect with me or get in touch at for a confidential chat today.