Sexual Harassment in the Victorian Public Service

Tabled: 28 November 2019

4 Prevention

Departments have a duty under the Equal Opportunity Act 2010 to take steps to eliminate sexual harassment in the workplace. This is a positive duty, which means they are legally obligated to take reasonable and proportional steps to provide a working environment that is free from sexual harassment. To do this, departments need to have effective prevention strategies, as shown in Figure 4A.

Figure 4A
Prevention strategies

Figure 4A shows prevention strategies

Source: VAGO.

We assessed whether departments take all reasonable steps to fulfil their duty to eliminate sexual harassment in the workplace. In doing so, we focused on departments' key prevention strategies.

4.1 Conclusion

Departments are committed to preventing sexual harassment and communicate a strong message that sexual harassment is unacceptable. They have relevant policies, most of which are consistent with better practice. However, training on sexual harassment is largely inadequate and mostly limited to induction and online modules. There is also little work to target support for those at higher risk of sexual harassment, such as LGBTIQ people and younger women.

4.2 Policies

A clear and accessible sexual harassment policy signals to staff that a department will not tolerate harassment in their workplace.

Policies help employees understand what sexual harassment is, and where to get help if they witness or experience it.

A comprehensive policy also minimises a department's risks and legal liability. In the case of Richardson v Oracle Corporation Australia Pty Limited (2013), the Federal Court of Australia found that the respondent organisation was liable partly due to gaps in its sexual harassment policy.

Adequacy of sexual harassment policies

To help departments implement comprehensive sexual harassment policies, the VPSC introduced its model policy on sexual harassment in November 2018.

We found that all departments have a policy that mostly aligns with the model policy. Instances where policies were not aligned include:

Departments' sexual harassment policies

No standalone sexual harassment policy

DJCS and DTF do not have a standalone sexual harassment policy. They include guidance on sexual harassment in other policies, such as an appropriate workplace behaviour policy.

DPC did not have a standalone policy when we began our audit but has since introduced one that is consistent with the model policy.

DTF is in the process of implementing a standalone policy.

Failure to have a standalone sexual harassment policy can reduce its visibility. We found that such policies lack the level of detail outlined in the model policy. This includes liability of staff and the organisation, relevant legislation and highlighting the departments commitment to eliminate sexual harassment as opposed to addressing broader inappropriate behaviour.

Does not state legislation and legal implications

DJCS and DTF either do not state the relevant legislation, or that there could be legal implications for sexual harassment should it occur.

When we began this audit, DPC did not reference the legislation, but has amended its policy to address this.

Does not outline the importance of bystander intervention

DJCS do not provide enough detail on the importance of bystander intervention.

When we began this audit, DET, DJPR and DoT did not include enough detail on bystander intervention, but have since amended their policies to address this.

Does not outline external complaint avenues

When we began this audit, DPC and DTF did not list in their policies the external agencies that take complaints on sexual harassment. This impacts complainants' faith in the system and their awareness of alternative avenues for raising their complaint. DPC has recently updated its policy.

Staff awareness of policies

Policies are only effective if staff are aware of them and know how to access them. We found that all departments had an accessible policy on their intranet.

As shown in Figure 4B, our survey found that 57 per cent of respondents knew where to find their department's policy on sexual harassment. While this is positive, 20 per cent of respondents did not know where to find the policy.

Figure 4B
How knowledgeable are you in relation to where to find your department's policy on sexual harassment?

Figure 4B shows how knowledgeable are you in relation to where to find your department's policy on sexual harassment?

Note: n=4 729.
Source: VAGO survey 2019.

Departments should communicate their sexual harassment policies and ensure staff know how to find them. We discuss this further in Section 4.5.

4.3 Training for staff

Departments can use training to prevent sexual harassment in their workforces. Training helps staff better understand what unacceptable behaviour is and how to respond in different situations. It may also encourage staff to report complaints. We found one instance where a staff member made a formal complaint because of training they attended.

If training…


fails to reach all staff

an opportunity to address existing issues may be missed.

content is inadequate

staff may not understand what sexual harassment is and what behaviours are inappropriate.

staff may not know what to do if they see or witness sexual harassment.

staff may not know how, or have the faith, to complain.

the department may be exposed to legal liability.

Factors that influence the adequacy of training include its:

  • frequency
  • mode of delivery (face-to-face or online)
  • content, including tailoring for specific groups.

Tailored training may help reach and educate specific groups, such as managers or workgroups with poor culture or high rates of sexual harassment.

Frequency of training

According to VEOHRC, sexual harassment training should be a mandatory part of induction for new employees, and departments should provide refresher training regularly.

All departments include sexual harassment in their induction modules, which are mandatory for all new staff. Outside of induction, staff training on sexual harassment is limited and not mandatory. We outline the training provided by each department in Appendix C.

Our survey found that more than 40 per cent of the respondents had never completed sexual harassment training and only 21 per cent had received sexual harassment training at induction, as shown in Figure 4C.

Figure 4C
Have you undertaken training on sexual harassment?


Figure 4C shows results to the question: have you undertaken training on sexual harassment?

Note: n= 4 729.
Source: VAGO survey 2019.

Delivery mode

Most training consists of an online module during the induction process. This can be completed at any time, often enables electronic capture of staff who completed the training and when, and ensures that departments meet their core training obligations.

According to VEOHRC, face-to-face training is more effective than online training and should be delivered to employees every two years. Although face-to-face training is more costly, it:

  • provides a forum for leaders to reiterate expected values and to demonstrate their commitment to prevent sexual harassment
  • encourages greater discussion among staff about sexual harassment
  • enables staff to better understand which behaviours are not acceptable.

However, as Appendix C highlights, limited face-to-face training occurs.


Training content

Training must be sufficiently detailed to ensure that staff understand what sexual harassment is and how to respond. Effective training gives employees the skills, knowledge and confidence to apply what they have learnt in the workplace.

Our survey found that of those that attended sexual harassment training, 60 per cent thought it was effective or very effective, as shown in Figure 4D.

Figure 4D
Effectiveness of training

Figure 4D shows effectiveness of training

Note: n= 2460. Results shown as a percentage of respondents who said they attended training.
Source: VAGO survey 2019.

We assessed training provided by each department. As outlined in Appendix C, we found that some training packages did not include key elements such as:

  • the relevant legislation
  • descriptions of what sexual harassment is and that it is unlawful
  • the impacts of sexual harassment
  • practical examples of sexual harassment.

We also found that many of the training packages did not discuss 'grey area' behaviours and bystander responsibilities, which we explore further below.

'Grey area' behaviours

Many of the training packages we reviewed focused on overt examples of sexual harassment. Staff would benefit from training that also discusses more nuanced behaviours that many survey respondents referred to as 'grey area' behaviours.

The most prevalent forms of sexual harassment in departments are intrusive questions or sexually suggestive comments or jokes. These can be 'grey area' behaviours, where some employees may feel offended and others may not.

Our survey found that people's understanding of sexual harassment can vary. We asked whether staff experienced a range of unwelcome behaviours of a sexual nature. Of those who had experienced those behaviours, people differed in their view as to whether this was sexual harassment:

Perception of behaviour

Result (%)

Considered the behaviour they experienced to be sexual harassment


Did not think what they experienced was sexual harassment


Thought some, but not all, was sexual harassment


Did not know


Prefer not to answer


Note: n=1 386. Results shown as a percentage of respondents who experienced sexual harassment.
Source: VAGO survey 2019.

Through our survey, we heard from many employees who were unsure about whether something they experienced was sexual harassment.


Training that discusses these behaviours is effective, because it:

  • works towards a group understanding of which behaviours are not acceptable
  • informs those who may behave this way that their behaviour could be perceived as sexual harassment
  • encourages those who experience these actions to speak up.
Bystander training

Bystanders play an important role. They can report sexual harassment when they witness it and support colleagues who experience it. VEOHRC recommends that bystander interventions make up a key part of departments' strategies for preventing sexual harassment. This includes referencing bystander interventions in policies and training packages.

Support from a bystander can be pivotal in an employee's decision to report the harassment they experience. It can also help a person experiencing sexual harassment feel that they have support from those around them. For this reason, training packages should:

  • provide clear guidance on what staff should do if they witness sexual harassment, including practical examples of ways to intervene
  • discuss the negative impacts of sexual harassment and how staff can support their colleagues who have experienced it.

Many of the training packages we reviewed reference the importance of bystanders calling out unacceptable behaviour. However, the packages do not guide potential bystanders on how they could do this.

4.4 Training for managers

Managers play a key role in complaint handling and resolution. A person who has experienced sexual harassment often first contacts their manager rather than make a formal complaint.

We found that survey participants felt that managers do not always respond appropriately to complaints and that this can have significant consequences:

  • The actions of my supervisor & ops manager at that time were almost as distressing as the sexual harassment. I was made to feel as though I was over reacting.
  • Education on this matter for anyone in a management role would be particularly important, so no one else has to go through what I did.

According to the 2019 PMS, those who experienced sexual harassment were less confident in approaching their manager to discuss concerns or grievances (55 per cent) than those who have not experienced it (76 per cent).

We found that no departments have specific standalone sexual harassment training for managers. Four of the eight departments (DET, DELWP, DJPR and DoT) have manager training that includes addressing complaints or wellbeing, as illustrated in Figure C3 in Appendix C.

Training managers to identify and respond to inappropriate behaviours may ensure better resolution of complaints and increase general confidence in the complaints process.

Effective training gives managers…

This benefits staff and the department by…

a clear understanding of their responsibilities to prevent sexual harassment and respond to complaints

increasing the likelihood of individuals reporting sexual harassment, as managers encourage complainants through their communication and actions

a clear understanding of the different types of sexual harassment, the impact they can have on their employees, and support options available

reducing the harm caused when a manager does not (or appears not to) support or believe a complainant

strategies on how to respond to sexual harassment complaints and ensures that they are aware of the available complaint channels

ensuring staff know how to access relevant channels

ensuring the complaints process runs as smoothly as possible, minimising unnecessary stress to the complainant and wider workplace disruption

making staff feel more supported

improving the workplace culture

a clear understanding of their responsibility to protect complainants from victimisation

ensuring staff are safe and not victimised for making a complaint

4.5 Communication

Regular communication from senior leadership reiterating a commitment to preventing sexual harassment in the workplace sends a powerful message. This can help build a culture that does not tolerate harassment and works as a preventative measure.

As well as communicating a commitment to the elimination of sexual harassment, departments should remind staff about their sexual harassment policy and complaint channels. VEOHRC recommends that this happen at least once a year.


Seven of the eight departments have sent out communications from the Secretary at least once since 1 January 2018. DoT has not yet sent out any correspondence as it has undergone significant change since it was formed in January 2019.

Some departments communicated to their staff more regularly. We found that departments used the release of PMS results to discuss sexual harassment and to reiterate their messages that sexual harassment is unacceptable.

Staff awareness

Our survey shows that most respondents have received communications from their department about its commitment to preventing sexual harassment, as illustrated in Figure 4E.

Figure 4E
My department communicates a zero-tolerance attitude to sexual harassment

Figure 4E shows my department communicates a zero-tolerance attitude to sexual harassment

Note: n= 4 729.
Source: VAGO survey 2019.

VEOHRC also suggests that departments consider reminders at key times, such as before work functions. We found examples of departments reminding employees of the sexual harassment policy before events such as the work Christmas party. We consider this to be better practice.

4.6 Risk factors

Taking proactive steps to address risk factors before sexual harassment occurs is one of the best ways for departments to minimise sexual harassment in the workplace.

Risk factors are any elements that make an employee, or a team, more likely to experience sexual harassment. Risk factors highlighted by researchers include:

  • poor workplace culture
  • gender inequality.

Poor workplace culture

Sexual harassment often exists in organisations with cultural problems. This means that those who experience sexual harassment may also be more likely to experience other bad behaviours and negative experiences.

From the 2019 PMS, we found:

Of those who experienced sexual harassment:

Compared to:

38% were also bullied

13% of those who did not experience sexual harassment

25% also experienced discrimination

6% of those who did not experience sexual harassment

39% were also experiencing high to severe work-related stress

24% of those who did not experience sexual harassment

As discussed in Part 3, workplace culture also impacts whether an employee reports sexual harassment.

VPSC research has identified correlations between low respect and accountability and increased rates of sexual harassment. We compared PMS respondents' answers to questions on culture and leadership and found that those who had experienced sexual harassment scored lower than those who had not experienced it.


Respondents who did not experience sexual harassment and agree (%)

Respondents who experienced sexual harassment and agree (%)

Difference (% points)

My organisation does not tolerate improper conduct




People in my workgroup are honest, open and transparent in their dealings




People in my workgroup treat each other with respect




I would be confident in approaching my manager to discuss concerns and grievances




Senior leaders consider the psychological health of employees to be as important as productivity




Senior leaders model my organisation's values




My manager listens to what I have to say




My manager treats employees with dignity and respect




Source: VAGO analysis of 2019 PMS data.

Addressing culture requires a whole-of-organisation approach and commitment. The PMS is only one source of information departments can use. DELWP, DJCS and DHHS have all undertaken their own surveys, giving them further data to address cultural issues.

DELWP and DPC include sexual harassment in their broader corporate strategies. The other departments (DET, DHHS, DJCS, DTF, DJPR and DoT) more generally mention ensuring positive culture and wellbeing or addressing inappropriate behaviours in their strategies. This misses an opportunity to more explicitly call out and focus on this issue.

Gender inequality

Research has shown that rigid gender stereotypes and gender inequality can increase the risk of sexual harassment.


The Victorian government and the not-for-profit sector have initiatives to create a safer and more respectful workplace for all genders. While it is difficult to determine whether these initiatives have a direct impact on sexual harassment, it does reflect strong leadership around establishing gender equality.

These initiatives include:

  • Safe and Strong
  • White Ribbon
  • Male Champions of Change.
Safe and Strong

The Victorian government's Safe and Strong: A Victorian Gender Equality Strategy (2016) promotes and ensures gender equality. The strategy aims to introduce gender auditing across the Victorian public service. The Office for Women (at the time with DHHS, but now with DPC) commissioned a gender audit pilot in 2017, which all departments took part in. The results showed inequality in pay and leadership.

Four departments have included targets in their strategies for executive officer or senior leadership positions to address gender inequality.

White Ribbon

White Ribbon was a registered charity that promoted the prevention of violence against women. During its operation, it offered an accreditation program. To gain accreditation, organisations had to meet 15 criteria including leadership and commitment, prevention of violence against women, and responses to violence against women. DHHS, DJCS and the former DEDJTR gained this accreditation. While not directly related to sexual harassment, this was a positive signal committing to prevention of violence against women. White Ribbon ceased operations in October 2019.

Male Champions of Change

The Male Champions of Change Institute works with male leaders across private and public sector organisations in Australia to support them in driving gender equality in their workplaces. DELWP and DPC have senior leaders who are also Male Champions of Change committed to gender equality and women in leadership.

4.7 Addressing PMS results

The PMS is the best source of information for departments to understand risk factors for sexual harassment. It is important that departments use the results to listen to what their employees are telling them and take decisive action.

DoT did not undertake the PMS in 2019 and so is unable to utilise this data to understand its organisational culture.


PMS action plans

After receiving the PMS results, departments prepare action plans setting out how they will address key risk areas. Departments can decide which areas they address.

From the 2018 PMS, four departments (DELWP, DJCS, DTF and DPC) had action plans to specifically address sexual harassment results.

DET and DHHS had action plans to address inappropriate behaviour more broadly, such as bullying, harassment and discrimination. While these do not specifically address sexual harassment, often the initiatives to address such behaviours overlap.

All of these plans aim to address PMS findings at a high level and include department-wide training and communication initiatives. However, these plans do not focus on individuals at higher risk of sexual harassment, such as those with a self-described gender identity, LGBTIQ employees, women and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employees, as outlined in Part 2.

The Victorian LGBTIQ Taskforce was established in 2015 and can advise government departments on ways to support their LGBTIQ employees. Both DHHS and DJCS have working groups that provide subject matter advice and support to this taskforce.

High-risk teams

Divisions, branches and teams within a department may experience sexual harassment at a higher rate compared to other areas. Since 2016, the VPSC has provided departments with detailed insight into certain work areas that experience higher rates of sexual harassment.

From 2019, the VPSC has provided departments with a summary of the top five branches, divisions or units that experienced the worst rates of sexual harassment. For example, in one department, less than 8 per cent of its respondents said that they had experienced sexual harassment. However, as shown in Figure 4F, some branches within this department experienced sexual harassment at a much higher rate.

Figure 4F
Sexual harassment risk areas in one department

Figure 4F shows sexual harassment risk areas in one department

Source: VPSC report to one department 2019.

Departments can harness this data and look at prevention of sexual harassment holistically. This may ensure not only that they comply with their legal obligations, but that staff are safe from harm.

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