Workplace Health & Safety

Report shows 89% of hospitality workers experience sexual harassment: How can your business help prevent it?

Dominic Powell /

Businesses have been advised to update their workplace policies and be mindful of employee welfare after a survey of more than 300 hospitality workers found nine in 10 have experienced sexual harassment at work.

The survey, undertaken by trade union United Voice, also revealed 86% of hospitality workers have felt unsafe or at risk in their workplace, and close to half believe employers do not take sexual harassment in the workplace seriously.

Read more: Hotel chain to contribute to $313,000 in damages after workplace sexual assault: Lessons for employers

Ninety percent of the 306 survey respondents were female, and 89% were under the age of 34. The most commonly reported cases of sexual harassment were sexist comments (87%), comments about workers’ bodies (85%), and sexual innuendos or insinuations (84%).

Additionally, 73% reported experiencing unwanted sexual advances, and 69% reported being touched inappropriately.

“The stories people have told us are horrible. Every day young women go to work feeling unsafe, in fear of being groped, humiliated or threatened by customers or managers,” Jess Walsh, Victorian secretary of United Voice said in a statement.

“Some employers put young workers’ safety and well-being well behind their customers’ desire to have another drink. It’s wrong and it’s dangerous. Young workers’ safety needs to come first second and third in the hospitality industry.”

Sexual harassment prevention as important as “having fire safety equipment”

Employment lawyer at Patron Legal Shane Wescott tells SmartCompany this morning even “seemingly innocuous” situations can snowball into serious problems for both the employee and employer.

Business owners should view workers’ wellbeing as important as having the “right fire safety equipment”, he says.

“Employers need to know this is a workplace health and safety issue. Even if the assault is at the lesser end of the scale it can result in mental health injuries, which are just like any other injury under work health and safety laws,” Wescott says.

Wescott says many business owners don’t realise they can be held vicariously liable for the conduct of their employees in sexual harassment cases and can face serious charges.

“Employers can face charges related to sexual assault if they’re found to not be doing enough to prevent and address problems as they arise,” he says.

“Even if it’s low-level harassment employers can be held liable.”

Wescott encourages businesses to ensure their sexual harassment and bullying workplace policies are up to date, but acknowledges just the presence of the policies is not enough, saying employers should be “actively turning their mind” to these issues.

Regular training and catchups advised

Some best practice methods Wescott recommends include regular training sessions with employees to ensure awareness, and highlighting sexual harassment is “not just an HR problem”.

“The hospitality industry is notorious for being a bit rough and ready, and it’s quite often very busy with little HR management and a tight budget,” he says.

“Many employers in the industry may think they don’t have the time to worry about sexual harassment, but they have to make the time. It’s part of your obligation as an employer.”

Along with staying mindful of employees, Wescott advises clear lines of communication between employers and employees.

“Foster a culture where employees feel comfortable coming to you with any issues,” he says.

“Implement fortnightly coffee catch-ups so you can talk to them about any issues they might be experiencing.”

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Dominic Powell

Dominic is the features and profiles editor at SmartCompany.

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