Workplace harassment and psychosocial harm: double jeopardy for employers

Managers need to step up

Workplace safety regulators are taking a strong line on workplace psychological injuries. A strategy document released by SafeWork NSW1 reports that psychological injuries are increasing at more than double the rate for physical injuries. And SafeWork has made it clear they are going to come down hard on employers that don’t protect their staff.

Alongside that, we have the ‘positive duty’ provision in the Respect@Work legislation. Employers have a positive duty to as far as practicable ensure that sexual harassment, bullying, and discrimination are eliminated from their workplaces.

Sexual harassment is all over the news at present. It’s not just the headline cases: Nine Media, Rio Tinto, Country Road – even the ABC. It’s also the reports, for example from the Human Rights Commission2, that more than 40% of female workers and more than 25% of male workers report having been sexually harassed at work. (And the HRC says it’s much worse in male-dominated industries.)

There can hardly be a more significant risk factor for workplace psychosocial injuries than sexual harassment, discrimination and bullying. Commonly, we see people coming out of these situations suffering severe, lifelong psychological harm.

This poses a double jeopardy for business: two different laws coming at the same problem from different directions.

Direct managers have a significant role to play

In many cases, people’s direct managers are the perpetrators. In cases currently in the news, the power imbalances, and the sense of entitlement that the relevant managers exhibited, were common factors.

In other cases it’s the workplace culture that legitimates peer-to-peer harassment. Usually the culture persists because the team manager either approves of the culture or fails to take effective action to repair it.

If organisations are going to protect themselves from the serious consequences – the very serious consequences – of workplace harassment and workplace psycho-social injuries, then it is clear that they need to make sure their people managers are up to the task, and in many cases this will require a change to the organisation’s training culture.3

Management Modelling of the Required Behaviours

It is crucial to understand that what we are talking about here is a cultural change. The change involves, among other things:

  • the very significant change of emphasis from a regime focussed on penalising bad behaviour to one focussed on mandating good behaviour
  • a cultural change that involves creating a culture of respect and equality
  • an attitudinal change on the shop floor

Change Management

We know that no significant cultural or behavioural change can ever succeed if it is not championed at a senior level in the organisation. For organisations to avoid the double jeopardy it is imperative that senior management models the required behaviours.

This involves

  • clearly exhibiting the required behaviours themselves
  • resolutely supporting those people in the organisation tasked with implementing the change
  • not tolerating any failure to comply, no matter by whom4

GRC Solutions Resources

We offer:

  • A suite of online training relevant to this area, including Workplace Behaviours Training and Psychosocial Hazards Training. View our relevant courses here.
  • Facilitated workshops delivered by experts in the field – download our brochure here.



1 at 2.2.1


3 Far too few people managers are properly trained for their roles. It is always bizarre to see that a business that wouldn’t dream of putting an unlicensed operator in charge of a piece of machinery, or allow an unqualified worker onto a trading floor, thinks nothing of putting an untrained person in charge of the business’s most important, and most expensive asset, its staff.

4 This latter may be the hardest to achieve: too often the perpetrator of these behaviours is a rainmaker who is allowed to feel their value to the organisation confers on them a level of immunity – even of entitlement.