Sexual Harassment and Recession – What are your rights?

Sexual Harassment and it’s Capacity

Sexual harassment has long been a pervasive, though often concealed, workplace issue. Now in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic that has swept the globe, will sexual harassment be temporarily be minimised? Unlikely.

Sexual harassment doesn’t just happen in physical office environments. As millions of Australians have been forced to work from home due to social distancing requirements, various technological platforms have been utilised like never before to facilitate remote communication. Sexual harassment has the capacity to filter through this technology – whether it be through text messages, Facebook Messenger, Microsoft Teams, Zoom, and so forth.

Potentially more than before, sexual harassment can be digitalised and mobile, extending beyond the workplace, into the sanctity of our homes.[1] As unemployment statistics soar, suddenly jobs become a precious commodity. With jobs becoming increasingly scarce, just how much will people tolerate to simply get or keep a job? 

Sexual Harassment During Recessions

Those in more senior positions may enjoy greater job security than their subordinates, and this widening of power dynamics could fundamentally result in abuses of authority.[2] The authority of those controlling employment and resources could become virtually unfettered, leading them to falsely believe that they can act however they wish without fear of consequences. As a result, workplace sexual harassment is bound to increase.[3]

One need only look at the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 to witness the impact of recession on sexual harassment complaints. In the United States, the number of sexual harassment claims in 2008 rose by 10.8% compared to the previous year.[4] This increase was correlated with the increase in unemployment that swept the world, but was particularly centralised in the United States.[5]

As jobs became more scarce, sexual harassment and discrimination claims increased, particularly as laid off employees sought some financial restitution in order to pay the bills and support their families.[6] Interestingly, during that recession, there was a significant increase in the number of men making sexual harassment complaints in the United States, as reported by Dana Mattioli in the Wall Street Journal.[7] Prior to the recession, in 2006, 15.4% of all sexual harassment claims were filed by men, but in 2009, this percentage had risen to 16.4% of all claims for that particular year.[8]

It was noted that the sharp increase in male sexual harassment claims was potentially correlated to the fact that men were generally more acutely affected by the recession. Due to unemployment, some of these men found it difficult to support their families and meet their financial obligations, and in their hardship turned to the legal system for financial redress for workplace issues they may not have otherwise reported due to the stigma surrounding male sexual harassment claims.[9]

In the current economic downturn stemming from the coronavirus pandemic, men should not be afraid to challenge any stigma associated with reporting sexual harassment and making a claim in the relevant Federal or State body. Sexual harassment is not acceptable for neither women nor men, and while both genders may face obstacles in reporting the inappropriate conduct, men may fear that they may appear less masculine or homosexual.[10]

However, stigma does not negate a valid sexual harassment claim filed by a man, nor should any male feel disempowered from taking action against an employer or previous employer that permitted them to be subjected to sexual harassment in the workplace – whether this be sexual advances, groping or vulgar language. Any inappropriate and unwanted conduct that makes an employee feel uncomfortable or humiliated in their workplace should not, and cannot, be tolerated.

Sexual Harassment While Working From Home

Moreover, inappropriate and unwanted conduct and sexual advances made towards an employee or co-worker whilst working remotely from home can certainly still constitute sexual harassment.[11] If so, not only will the individual employee be liable, but the employer may also be vicariously liable for the harassing behaviour of its employees, regardless of whether the inappropriate conduct occurs from home. 

Certainly, remote technology poses its own challenges. Unlike in a physical office environment, communications over messages or video chat can have the potential to be more easily misconstrued and misinterpreted.[12] It may be difficult to ascertain the tone or meaning of an instant message, or whether a colleague is laughing or grimacing at a joke made over video chat.

Regardless, the capacity for misconception about intentions and meaning are no excuse for sexual harassment. If in doubt about whether conduct or comments are appropriate for the workplace, it is best not to act upon it. Whatever the intentions may have been, if conduct can be perceived as inappropriate and sexual in nature and co-workers are made to feel uncomfortable or humiliated as a result, a complaint of sexual harassment will be valid.

Does my employer have any obligations to protect me?

Regardless of the turbulence and uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic, Australian employers must not turn a blind eye to their obligations to protect their employees from sexual harassment directed at them by their fellow co-workers.

Employers should be mindful and perceptive when interacting with their employees virtually, and be on the lookout for any indications that someone is being harassed or is harassing someone else. If an employee withdraws from their work and interacts less with their colleagues, employers should potentially take this as a cue to inquire as to whether that particular employee feels safe and protected at work, even if this is from home.[13]

Employers must take it upon themselves to ensure that all employees are treated equally and fairly. It is essential to facilitate a workplace environment that is not conducive to sexual harassment or abuses of power, in order to send a message to potential harassers that such conduct is not tolerated by the company, as well as to all employees that they are protected at work. Such messages can be communicated through the organisation’s policies and processes.[14]

If it is clearly evident that harassment and discrimination are not acceptable in the workplace, such behaviours may be less likely to occur, and if they do, those being harassed would know that they can, and should, report the behaviour. Clear and accessible processes for reporting harassment should also be implemented to better ensure that harassed employees are protected and inappropriate conduct is able to be redressed.

What are my rights?

If you have been sexually harassed or discriminated against in the workplace by your employer or colleagues, regardless of whether this occurred in the physical office environment or from your own home, you have rights. The current pandemic and its implications on workplaces is no excuse for sexual harassment or discrimination. Speaking up is your right, and you cannot be forced to tolerate inappropriate behaviour simply to keep your job. You have a voice and you are entitled to report and seek redress for any injustice you are subjected to in your workplace.

If you believe that you may have a sexual harassment or discrimination claim, we can help. Call us now on 1800 333 666.


[1] Ellen Pinkos Cobb, ‘Sexual Harassment in a Changing Workplace: Through the Context of Culture and COVID-19’, SAI Global (Web Page) <https://www.saiglobal.com/hub/blog/sexual-harassment-in-a-changing-workplace-through-the-context-of-culture-and-covid-19>.

[2] Sandra Feder-Stanford, ‘Pandemic Work/Life Balance Burden Falls More on Women’, Futurity (Web Page) <https://www.futurity.org/work-life-balance-covid-19-pandemic-2354782/>.

[3] Sandra Feder-Stanford, ‘Pandemic Work/Life Balance Burden Falls More on Women’, Futurity (Web Page) <https://www.futurity.org/work-life-balance-covid-19-pandemic-2354782/>.

[4] Dana Mattioli, ‘More Men Make Harassment Claims’, The Wall Street Journal (online, 23rd March 2010) <https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052748704117304575137881438719028>.

[5] Dana Mattioli, ‘More Men Make Harassment Claims’, The Wall Street Journal (online, 23rd March 2010) <https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052748704117304575137881438719028>.

[6] Dana Mattioli, ‘More Men Make Harassment Claims’, The Wall Street Journal (online, 23rd March 2010) <https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052748704117304575137881438719028>.

[7] Dana Mattioli, ‘More Men Make Harassment Claims’, The Wall Street Journal (online, 23rd March 2010) <https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052748704117304575137881438719028>.

[8] Dana Mattioli, ‘More Men Make Harassment Claims’, The Wall Street Journal (online, 23rd March 2010) <https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052748704117304575137881438719028>.

[9] Dana Mattioli, ‘More Men Make Harassment Claims’, The Wall Street Journal (online, 23rd March 2010) <https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052748704117304575137881438719028>.

[10] Dana Mattioli, ‘More Men Make Harassment Claims’, The Wall Street Journal (online, 23rd March 2010) <https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052748704117304575137881438719028>.

[11] Nicola Martin, ‘Working from home? Your workplace policies still apply’, McCabe Curwood (Web Page) <https://mccabecurwood.com.au/working-from-home-workplace-policies-covid19/>.

[12] Nicola Martin, ‘Working from home? Your workplace policies still apply’, McCabe Curwood (Web Page) <https://mccabecurwood.com.au/working-from-home-workplace-policies-covid19/>.

[13] Robyn Swirling, ‘Sexual Harassment Still Happens When You Work from Home During a Pandemic’, Medium (Web Page) <https://medium.com/swlh/sexual-harassment-still-happens-when-you-work-from-home-during-a-pandemic-3bba3e230399>.

[14] Robyn Swirling, ‘Sexual Harassment Still Happens When You Work from Home During a Pandemic’, Medium (Web Page) <https://medium.com/swlh/sexual-harassment-still-happens-when-you-work-from-home-during-a-pandemic-3bba3e230399>.

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