There have been a number of high profile sexual harassment cases in the news recently and interestingly the combination of Coronavirus, working from home and the recent cases are encouraging more workplace sexual harassment complaints. Victoria's equal opportunity Commissioner has reported that sexual harassment complaints are up about 8 per cent since the COVID-19 pandemic hit Australia.

It appears that working from home and the distance from the office this creates as well as being separated from the alleged perpetrator has seen an increase in the number of historic complaints of sexual harassment in the workplace.

The law defines sexual harassment as unwelcome sexual behaviour that causes a person to feel offended, humiliated or intimidated, where a reasonable person could have anticipated that reaction in the circumstances. Sexual harassment can be physical, verbal or written. Sexually explicit emails, text messages or posts on social media are examples of sexual harassment that can occur even if employees are not working together in the office.

As such every business should ensure that they have a sexual harassment policy for staff and a complaints procedure in place. In addition it is the responsibility of the employer to ensure that staff have adequate training on sexual harassment and understand the policies and procedures. Any complaints made by an employee should be treated seriously and handled in accordance with the complaints procedure in a timely manner. Employers should also review existing policies and procedures periodically to make sure they are up to date and accessible.

An employer that complies with all of the above is more likely to be able to demonstrate they have fulfilled their positive duty under the Equal Opportunity Act 2010 (Vic) to provide a safe workplace and to take all reasonable steps to prevent sexual harassment at work. Employers that are not proactive also risk serious financial consequences and reputational risk to their business.

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