Skip to main content

Encourage. Support. Act! - Introduction

Encourage. Support. Act!

Bystander Approaches to Sexual Harassment in the Workplace


I am pleased to present Encourage. Support. Act!: Bystander Approaches to Sexual Harassment in the Workplace, a research paper authored by Paula McDonald (Queensland University of Technology) and Michael Flood (University of Wollongong).

Sexual harassment is conduct of a sexual nature that a reasonable person would anticipate could make the person harassed feel offended, humiliated or intimidated. It is a form of sex discrimination and usually a manifestation of gender-based violence.

Sexual harassment is widespread in Australia. 22 percent of women aged 18-64, and 5 percent of men aged 18-64 years experience sexual harassment in the workplace. It is not surprising, therefore, that almost one-third of all complaints received by the Australian Human Rights Commission in 2010-11 under the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 related to sexual harassment.

Particularly concerning is the fact that those who experience sexual harassment rarely report it. The ‘hidden’ nature of sexual harassment makes it especially difficult to bring the problem to the surface. Creative and innovative approaches are required.

One such approach is to enlist the help of bystanders; that is individuals who witness or are informed of sexual harassment. Bystanders can be highly effective in raising awareness of sexual harassment. They can also intervene to prevent harm and contribute to improving workplace practices and cultures that reduce the occurrence of sexual harassment.

In 2008, the Commission conducted a Sexual Harassment National Telephone Survey. The Survey found that 12% of respondents had witnessed sexual harassment, the large majority of whom went on to take some form of action. Witnesses – or bystanders - most commonly listened or offered advice to targets of sexual harassment, but many also confronted harassers or made formal complaints. Tellingly, bystanders were twice as likely to take action, than were targets of sexual harassment.

For those who experience and witness it, sexual harassment can have significant negative health and other consequences. It is also costly to organisations. Employee turnover, reduced morale, absenteeism, the threat of legal action, injury to reputation and loss of shareholder confidence are just some of the possible consequences. These flow-on effects for business productivity indicate we cannot afford to ignore bystander strategies.

In May 2011, the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 was amended to expand protections against sexual harassment. This was a step in the right direction for strengthening protections.

However, in order for bystanders to feel supported in highlighting sexual harassment in the workplace, there must be a substantial shift in organisational culture. Organisational environments must support the reporting of sexual harassment. This will encourage bystanders to take action. This paper outlines some of the key factors that discourage bystanders from taking action. These factors include a lack of knowledge of workplace rights, low expectations of reporting mechanisms and a fear of the potential negative impacts of reporting on career.

Drawing from other research in areas such as whistle blowing, racial harassment and workplace bullying, this paper recommends a number of strategies to encourage bystander intervention. Development of training programs, grievance procedures, multiple complaints channels and incentives for bystanders to make valid reports of sexual harassment are some of the suggestions. Assuring bystanders of anonymity and immunity from legal action and victimisation are others. I believe that actions such as these have real potential to increase reporting and reduce the incidence of sexual harassment in Australia.

If we don’t support and encourage the targets of sexual harassment and any bystanders to take action, we run the risk of creating cultures of tolerance. It is up to organisations to provide this support and encouragement, thereby making it clear that sexual harassment has no place in our workplaces or in our society.

It is my hope that this paper will become a critical resource that provides the basis for understanding the role of bystanders and implementing effective strategies to support and encourage action against sexual harassment in Australian workplaces.

Elizabeth Broderick

Sex Discrimination Commissioner

Australian Human Rights Commission


June 2012