Zero tolerance for sexual harassment at staff parties

Kerrie-Anne Chinn, Content & Editorial Manager

With Christmas just around the corner and the holiday season in full swing, it's time for the annual end-of-year work party for many companies. While this is supposed to be a time of high spirits, fun and celebration with your team mates, these occasions can unfortunately often see incidents of sexual harassment rise in number.

In recent months, we’ve seen a lot of media focus and discussion around the pervasiveness of sexual harassment in many industries. The Australian Human Rights Commission’s 2012 survey tells us that 1 in 4 women (25%) and 1 in 6 men (16%) have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace.


To address these figures, it’s vital that Australian employers take a strong stand against sexual harassment, discouraging it in all its various forms and in all work environments – including staff Christmas parties.

You can reduce the risk of incidents taking place at your work party by making sure you have a proper understanding of exactly what constitutes sexual harassment, what steps you can take to prevent it, and how you can create a zero tolerance culture in your organisation.

Be Aware of What Constitutes Sexual Harassment

One of the biggest problems with sexual harassment is that it can take the form of many different behaviours and actions, with some of them less obvious or aggressive than others.

Whilst many people may think of sexual harassment purely in terms of unwanted sexual advances or inappropriate touching, it can also encompass other more subtle forms of behaviour – behaviour that is still, however, completely unacceptable. At a work social event, such as the end-of-year party, these lines can unfortunately become even more blurred.

The Australian Human Rights Commission defines sexual harassment as “any unwanted or unwelcome sexual behaviour, which makes a person feel offended, humiliated or intimidated.” There are many ways that an individual can be made to feel uncomfortable or intimidated, without physical contact occurring. And they are all potentially damaging.

Unfortunately, in many workplaces, particularly male-dominated work environments, unacceptable actions or comments are often passed off as “jokes” or locker room talk, or just dismissed with a shrug and a “boys will be boys” attitude. When mixed with alcohol and the casual atmosphere of the staff Christmas party, these attitudes can really rise to the surface.

Regardless of whether someone is staring inappropriately, making sexually suggestive comments, telling inappropriate “jokes” or subjecting you to unwelcome physical contact – all of these examples are considered sexual harassment and are behaviours that are completely unacceptable in any work environment.

Make Sure Your Organisation Has a Clear Sexual Harassment Policy

The key to preventing sexual harassment from occurring within your company is for employers and management to ensure that they have a clear policy in place, that defines sexual harassment and outlines unacceptable behaviour and its consequences.

Developing and promoting this policy will make it clear to every employee that sexual harassment is 100% unacceptable in your workplace – at any time. Create a clear and effective policy on sexual harassment, communicating it to all staff within your organisation.

Be sure that your policy is compliant with all local, state and federal laws. Define clear consequences for any form of sexual harassment and monitor staff to make sure employees are complying with this policy.

As an employer, you have a responsibility to be on the lookout for inappropriate conduct and to stop it right away. Be aware that you can also be held liable for the actions of an individual, if it can be shown that you knew sexual harassment was occurring and failed to address the matter.

Make sure that you and other managers encourage the prompt reporting of incidents and always act immediately on any complaints that involve sexual harassment.

Make Sexual Harassment Training Compulsory for All Staff

Make sure that training around the subject of sexual harassment is ongoing for all employees, with refresher training sessions held at least once a year to remind staff of the policy and reinforce its key messages.

You can also hold separate sessions for all managers and supervisors, to educate them on the policy and make sure they are aware of the correct procedures. Managers, supervisors and team leaders should participate in training specifically relevant for their positions, as they can play a significant role in preventing workplace harassment.

Your leaders must be up-to-date with all sexual harassment laws in your state and know how to deal with any incidences in the proper way.

You might want to communicate a reminder to staff, at this time of year, that there will be zero tolerance for sexual harassment of any form at the company Christmas party or end-of-year celebration.

Zero Tolerance for Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

When incidences of sexual harassment occur within a company, it results in serious negative impacts for both the individual and the organisation as a whole.

Cultivate a zero tolerance work culture, making it clear to all staff that sexual harassment is neither welcome nor tolerated. Make sure individuals are aware of their rights and are empowered with a clear idea of what constitutes sexual harassment, so they can feel confident in addressing and reporting it. 

Also, ensure managers, supervisors and team leaders understand their particular role in maintaining a strong stance against harassment in the workplace and leading by example.

In group environments such as the workplace, sexual harassment can have an unfortunate cumulative effect on other staff who bear witness to the behaviour, serving to reinforce and normalise negative male/female stereotypes – especially if the behaviour is not stopped. This is why it’s so important to speak up when you see or hear something unacceptable, even if you’re not in a management position. And yes, even at the staff Christmas party.

By speaking out against sexual harassment, and calling out inappropriate behaviour in the workplace, you can challenge and change the dynamics in your own sphere of influence. You’ll also be encouraging other women, and men, to do the same.

Everyone has a right to enjoy their end-of-year celebration in a safe, positive environment – just think about that for a moment.

If you’d like to learn more about handling sexual harassment in the workplace, or how you can take steps to prevent harassment in your organisation, you might like to read our previous articles:

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