Sexual harassment in the workplace and beyond

Published: 22nd July 2021

There is currently an increased focus on the laws and reporting requirements for sexual harassment in Australia. There appears to be confusion on the operation of those laws, partly due to the differing treatment of sexual harassment throughout Australia’s states and territories.

Sexual harassment law in Queensland

In Queensland, sexual harassment is prohibited by the Anti-Discrimination Act 1991 (Qld) (ADA) and the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth) (SDA). It may come as a surprise to some people that the ADA prohibits sexual harassment in all situations, not just in the workplace and work-related areas.  

Sexual harassment is a civil offence in Queensland. However, it may be a criminal offence and include, for example:

•     Making obscene phone calls
•     Indecent exposure
•     Sexual assault.

What precisely is sexual harassment? 

Sexual harassment is any unwelcome conduct “of a sexual nature” that is done either to offend, humiliate or intimidate another person, or where it is reasonable to expect the person might feel that way.

It is irrelevant to the question of whether in fact that person is offended, humiliated or intimidated. It merely has to be shown that it is reasonable to expect a person might feel that way.

Sex-based harassment is a form of discrimination. It is a conduct that occurs because of the sex of the intended victim and is not necessarily sexual in nature.

Examples of this kind of behaviour are:

•     A statement that a female employee belongs at home or is not a suited for a particular job because she is a woman
•     A conduct referring to pregnancy, childbirth or related conditions
•     Offensive jokes that do not refer to sex, but the joke is told to embarrass a person because, for example, he is a man.

You can be sexually harassed by anyone. Sexual harassment does not have to be repeated or ongoing to be against the law. According to the Queensland Human Rights Commission, you can be discriminated against across several matters including but not limited to your sexuality.

Under the ADA, sexual harassment includes:

•     Writing policy about sexual harassment and making sure all employees, especially managers and supervisors, are appropriately trained in how to reduce or prevent incidents from happening 
•     Introducing effective processes for dealing with complaints
•     Providing adequate training to minimise the risks associated with sexual harassment. As a minimum this can be met through the provision of regular, compulsory online training.

Councils or organisations cannot avoid their legal responsibility by saying they were not aware of sexual harassment in their workplace.

This means that the council, as well as the person or persons who engaged in the sexual harassment, can be liable to pay compensation for loss or damage suffered by a person as the result of sexual harassment.

The success of the implementation of these policies and procedures in large part depends on the level of awareness and understanding among employees on their obligations under the Anti-Discrimination Act

Should you require assistance in relation to this area, please contact Mr Brian O’Shea, Special Counsel, Peak Services Legal on 07 3000 2152 or email

Reach out to your IR Helpdesk for assistance via 1300 542 700.