No leering or s-xting allowed: why employers should take note of a new ad campaign

Inappropriate workplace conversations and sexual harassment are the focus of the latest advertising campaign from the Human Rights Commission.

As sexual harassment continues to make headlines, with the claims against Tinder’s CEO surfacing only last week, the “Know where the line is” campaign aims to educate workers about the difference between friendly behaviours in the workplace and those that ‘cross the line’ into harassment territory.

The campaign attempts to explain to employees that texting a colleague is okay, but ‘sexting’ them is not; that looking at a colleague is acceptable, but ‘leering’ at them is not; and asking about their sexual activity also crosses the line.

Melbourne University senior lecturer Dr Lauren Rosewarne, an expert on gender and discrimination issues, told SmartCompany that while some of the messages seem to be common sense, employers should pay attention to the campaign to help avoid legal responsibility for sexual harassment.

“If you are sexually harassed in the workplace, your employer is responsible,” says Rosewarne.

“Workplaces have to be seen to be running a tight ship in educating their employees.”

“Not texting a colleague a picture of your genitals might seem obvious, but most public awareness campaigns tend to have messages that people already understand,” she says.

The Human Rights Commission says one in four women have experienced harassment at work, even though it has been outlawed for more than 25 years, and men’s harassment of other men is also on the rise.

One in five complaints received by the commission under the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 relate to sexual harassment.

In a statement, Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick said as a result of sexual harassment, businesses can experience negative impacts in the form of productivity and reputation losses, problems with OHS or workplace health and safety, higher levels of team conflict, higher leave costs, lower staff retention and increased workers compensation claims.

Rosewarne says the campaign highlights two interesting shifts in sexual harassment employers should be aware of.

Firstly, the messages are not gendered, showing that sexual harassment can happen to men as equally as it happens to women, and secondly, the message has a spin towards digital interaction.

“We know the old style of dodgy calendars, or saying to someone ‘nice tits’… this campaign brings to light that the way we harass has changed over time,” says Rosewarne.

She says employers must be vigilant about providing this new information to employees.

E&I People Solutions HR consultant Abiramie Sathiamoorthy told SmartCompany that while it is hard to say how common this type of behaviour is in the workplace, it is important for every business to outline its expectations relating to workplace behaviour and educate teams on what harassment and sexual harassment looks like, regardless of the size of business or the workplace culture.

“The intent of such things is always irrelevant and what matters is how the individual who is on the other end of this behaviour feels about it and reacts,” says Sathiamoorthy.

“Even if it’s meant to be taken as a joke or light-heartened banter you can’t always guarantee the other person will see it the same way,” she says.

“It’s important to be mindful of the workplace context and that it’s still a professional setting so you know where the line is and not to cross it.”

Sathiamoorthy says if employees are not aware of these things it could be a costly oversight both financially and culturally.

“Always best to be safe than sorry in these situations and take the line that even if you think the behaviour could slightly be offensive, to not risk it and not do it,” she says.


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