Leadership in Preventing Workplace Harassment
Leadership heads the list of the 7 practical areas for which the AHRC has set out standards that outline what it expects organisations to do to satisfy the positive duty, to prevent sexual harassment.
The Guidelines state:
“Senior leaders hold ultimate responsibly and accountability for the governance and legal compliance of their organization or business. They are responsible for their own actions, the actions of those they lead… and shaping the broader workplace culture.”
Leadership also has to feature prominently because power imbalances are a driver of workplace sexual harassment. Statistically harassment occurs most frequently when a senior male perpetrator is in authority over a subordinate female. The AHRC 2022 report showed 36% of harassment occurs with someone more senior, be that a more senior co-worker, direct manger, another manager or supervisor, or CEO/business owner. And the #MeToo movement has shone a bright spotlight on harassers’ abuse of power with numerous examples locally and globally we are all too familiar with.
The fact of the matter is that in organizations which have cultures which are dismissive of respect and inclusiveness, leaders and others with authority are more inclined to behave poorly believing that they are immune from any accountability.
of harassment occurs with someone more senior, be that a more senior co-worker, direct manger, another manager or supervisor, or CEO/business owner
The AHRC Guidelines give extensive details on measures to be implemented and behaviours to be adopted by leaders to give effect to their responsibilities. These include understanding the law; overseeing a ‘prevention and response plan; being regularly informed about implementation; and being visibly committed to safe, respectful and inclusive workplaces.
But this commitment will only become visible when leaders are equipped to role model what respectful and inclusive behaviour looks like themselves, where they unequivocally demonstrate that unlawful behaviours are not accepted or condoned. The reality is that whilst there are a handful of leaders who are naturally inclusive – Symmetra’s local and global research over the last 10 years shows a significant inclusive leadership capability gap with only 10% of the thousands of leaders we have assessed on our 360 Inclusive leadership Index demonstrating that they are true inclusion champions. The rest fall below the median revealing much room for development.
Organizations cannot assume their leaders will behave inclusively because the law and the AHRC guidelines say they must. Organizations have to take conscious and intentional steps to equip their leaders with inclusion skills, with the skills to establish psychologically safe and respectful workplaces – just as they would invest equipping those leaders with a range of other managerial skills to run their organization effectively. This is the first critical step, and perhaps the most important, that will position organisations to achieve fulfillment of their positive duty.
Symmetra’s primary focus is building Inclusive systems, leaders, teams and cultures. We help to build Inclusive Leadership Capability through high impact programs combining assessments, practical learning and embedding tools to make inclusion a habit at all levels of the organisation. Our Inclusion for Purpose and Performance program has proven results within organisations locally and globally +92% improvement in diversity perceptions; +14% uplift in employee sense of belonging, +8% improvement in engagement and wellbeing indices. Our Respectful and Inclusive workplace solutions include a leader specific program where we raise awareness of the legislation and the positive duty and help build the capability of leaders and teams to become active allies of everyone around them and speak up against acts of exclusion and harassment.
to equip leaders and organizations with the tools they need to meet the positive duty:
Understand the Law
Senior leaders must have a comprehensive understanding of anti-discrimination and workplace harassment laws—not just for compliance, but for actively upholding legal standards, and staying on top of any changes.
Govern and Ensure Compliance
Leaders must ensure that the organisation meets all seven standards, regularly check that measures are being implemented, review data and hold people accountable.
Develop a Prevention & Response Plan
Collaborate with HR and legal experts to create a robust plan outlining how the organization will take active steps to prevent and respond to misconduct. Ensure that all employees are aware of this plan.
Demonstrate Visible Commitment
Leaders need to lead by example— educating themselves on inclusive behaviour, rewarding positive examples in their team, and taking appropriate steps to demonstrate that unlawful behaviors are neither accepted nor tolerated within the organization.
Regularly Monitor Progress
Continuous improvement is key—leaders should regularly assess and monitor the effectiveness of the prevention plan, making data-driven decisions to enhance its impact. A clear timeframes for reporting cycles must be established.
These practical guidelines are more than just a checklist—they are the foundation for a cultural shift in the organization. Leaders have the responsibility to foster an environment where every employee feels safe, respected, and empowered; and this begins with informed and committed leadership.