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What is workplace harassment?

Workplace harassment is unwanted behaviour that is likely to offend, humiliate or intimidate and which is based on an attribute such as a person's:

  • Age
  • Gender
  • Race
  • Religion
  • Marital status
  • Disability

The harassment may occur at your place of work, or at workplace events (such as Christmas parties), and may be physical or psychological.

What is the difference between harassment and bullying in the workplace?

‘Harassment’ and ‘bullying’ are words that are often used interchangeably, however there are subtle differences in the meaning of each.

Workplace harassment

Workplace harassment involves unwelcome behaviour based on a characteristic such as age, gender, sex, race, religion or a disability.

Behaviour does not have to pose a health or safety risk to constitute harassment. While it is normally related to race, gender or other attributes, workplace bullying may occur without these characteristics being present. 

Although there is a difference between bullying and harassment in the workplace, it is possible to be the victim of both at the same time.

Workplace bullying

Workplace bullying is abuse that is directed unreasonably and repeatedly towards a worker or a group of workers, and that creates a risk to health and safety. Learn more about workplace bullying.

What can you do if you are being harassed in the workplace?

If you are being harassed at work, you may consider the following actions:

  • Keep a record of the harassment and when it occurs
  • Request that the behaviour stop
  • Speak to someone you trust
  • Raise it with your health and safety representative
  • Check your workplace harassment policy
  • Report the harassment in accordance with your workplace policy

Is harassment the same as discrimination?

Discrimination is when an ‘adverse action’ occurs as a result of a person’s characteristics. In other words, if someone is fired or demoted because of their race, religion, sex or marital status, this is regarded not just as harassment, but as discrimination.

For example, if you are fired because you are female, or you identify as female, this would be regarded as gender-based discrimination, which is unlawful under Australia’s Sex Discrimination Act.

What is workplace sexual harassment?

Workplace sexual harassment involves unwelcome sexual behaviour, which could be expected to make a person feel offended, humiliated or intimidated. The behaviour can occur at your place of work or at workplace events.

Some examples of workplace sexual harassment include:

  • Making sexually suggestive comments or jokes
  • Displaying sexually suggestive material
  • Sending sexually explicit emails or texts

Sexual harassment can be written, verbal or physical. It does not have to be repeated – a single incident of unwelcome sexual behaviour at work can constitute workplace sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment is unlawful in Australia and some forms of sexual harassment such as stalking, obscene phone calls and indecent exposure can also be criminal offences.

Need more information?

Several government organisations provide guidance around what constitutes workplace harassment and what to do if you are being harassed at work.