Crossing the Line: Flirting vs Sexual Harassment

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The recent media attention on sexual misconduct in Hollywood is a turning point; what may have been considered 'innocent flirting' in the 70s and 80s is increasingly being called what it is - unwanted harassment. The public condemnation of film mogul Harvey Weinstein's conduct has emboldened people to come forward with allegations of sexual misconduct against other celebrities, in what some have described as the 'Weinstein ripple effect'. 

There has been a significant shift in recent years in the way the criminal justice system conceptualises consent, and this has likewise affected the perception of harassment. 

Although the Hollywood allegations are of a serious nature, with some amounting to sexual assault and rape, they have also cast the spotlight on work relationships in journalism, entertainment, politics and the everyday workplace -'the office'. The question arises: what constitutes sexual harassment in 2017?

legal definition of sexual harassment in australia

Although many assume that sexual harassment must occur between a man and a woman, in Australia this is not the case - it can take place between persons identifying with any sex or any gender. 

According to the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth), 'sexual harassment' includes unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favours, or other conduct of a sexual nature - the key element being that the behaviour is not welcomed by the recipient. 

The conduct needs to be assessed from the viewpoint of a reasonable person and whether the reasonable person would consider, in all the circumstances, that the recipient might be 'offended, humiliated or intimidated' by it. 

Even more seriously, sexual assault includes a person being forced, coerced or tricked into a sexual act against their will and without their consent. If the victim is a child, it's sexual assault regardless of any apparent consent. 

In cases where sexual assault is alleged in the workplace, the complainant needs to be advised that they can make a complaint to the Police. 

Should the conduct involve a minor, it may constitute 'reportable conduct' - which is required to be reported in accordance with the relevant state legislation, as well as to the Police. 

SO, is it flirting - or harassment?

Many interpersonal interactions between employees are, particularly in their early stages, subtler and more ambiguous than clear examples of harassment. Smiles, winks, compliments, sexual innuendo and humour, suggestive glances, or even a touch on the arm or shoulder could be seen by some as innocent flirting - but perceived by others as harassment. Recipients of such behaviour may wonder whether these comments and behaviours are friendly or sinister in nature, intentional or accidental, a one-time event or likely to persist. 

When determining whether behaviour might be sexual harassment, it can be made clearer by answering some important questions, such as: 

  • Does the recipient seem uncomfortable or fail to respond to comments or discussions?
  • Is one person involved in the conversation in a position of authority?
  • Could the person making the overtures impose real professional consequences on the recipient if they were turned down?

the role of touching in sexual harassment

It is clear that engaging in unwanted touching is an even more serious offence than making offensive or inappropriate comments or suggestions. For this reason, many employers consider it prudent to ban physical contact in the workplace beyond simple handshakes. Of course, this can also have an impact on how friendly the workplace is perceived as being, so depending on your workplace, it may be more appropriate to closely monitor physical interaction rather than ban it outright. Generally speaking, however, those in positions of power such as managers or supervisors should avoid physical contact where possible. 

the role of power and status

Interestingly, studies have revealed that some men in positions of power find their roles inextricably linked to sex - meaning that they struggle to differentiate between women (or other men, if that lines up with their sexual orientation) who are sexually responsive, or who are simply being friendly. For many reasons, not least to protect a business against potential claims of harassment, employers must do their best to minimise the potential for any inappropriate conduct to occur between managers and supervisors and staff. 

So what should employers do?

Employers have a duty of care to their employees to make sure that they are safe and protected while at work. Employers must have clear policies in place on what types of behaviour are considered to be sexual harassment, and how complaints can be made. Policies should be well communicated to all staff, and staff should be educated on what is expected of them regarding behaviour in the workplace. 

In order to protect your business and staff against flirting going too far and turning into sexual harassment, contact WISE Workplace today for expert assistance with workplace investigations, anti-sexual harassment training and assistance with reviewing or drafting your policies.  

When Gender is Irrelevant: Male-On-Male Workplace Harassment

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Sexual harassment and predatory behaviour can happen to anybody. When most people think about this type of conduct, it is generally in the context of male-to-female harassment or, perhaps more rarely, female-to-male harassment. However, this is simply not the case - sexual harassment can be perpetrated by anybody towards anybody. 

A recent decision of the Civil and Administrative Tribunal of NSW highlights the potential for employees to be victims of sexual harassment and victimisation in the workplace, regardless of their gender. 

The decision in Kordas v Ruba & Jo Pty Ltd t/a Aztec Hair & Beauty also affirms the entitlement of workers to financial compensation when they have been subjected to sexual harassment. 

Inappropriate behaviour

In Kordas, the worker complained about various instances of inappropriate behaviour and sexual harassment during his employment as an apprentice hairdresser working for the respondent. 

The behaviour complained of by the worker included:

  • Being told by his employer that workers were similar to racehorses because 'they need a pat on the bum to go faster'.
  • Having his supervisor tell clients that he and the worker were similar to a gay couple and that they were very 'close'. 
  • Being followed into a private area, slapped on the buttocks with a ruler by his trainer and being asked to smack him back because the trainer 'like[d] being slapped on the bum'.
  • Humiliation by the trainer when he threw a hair clip onto the ground, in the worker's opinion, because the employer wanted to see him bend over. 
  • The trainer complaining that the worker had incorrectly clipped a cape onto a client
  • Feeling harassed when the worker asked the trainer if he felt they got along and the response was yes, because 'you're my bitch'. 
  • Upon complaining to his employer and asking why he was referred to as the salon 'bitch', being told 'I used to work in a restaurant. All the boys used to grab me by my boobs'. 
  • Being grabbed around the waist and physically moved by his supervisor instead of being asked to move out of the way. 
  • Having his palm stroked in a flirtatious manner by his employer when he was handed money for errands. 

The worker had initially complained to his boss, who was also the director and owner of the business running the hair salon, about being victimised. But no action was taken, and the worker was ultimately dismissed. 

The history of complaints

The apprentice stated that he had not complained initially about the inappropriate behaviour because he had wanted to keep his job. 

However, in February 2015, the worker finally complained to the employer about various issues he was experiencing, including very low wages, ongoing harassment and feeling that he was being sabotaged. Although the employer initially promised that everything would be sorted out, he then made the above mentioned comment, likening hairdressers to racehorses. 

At this time, the worker demanded changes in his treatment, but the employer denied ever having received any complaints or personally witnessed any harassment. 

The employer then advised the worker that there were no senior staff available to continue his training and dismissed him. The stress and emotions suffered by the worker as a result of this treatment ultimately caused him to leave his chosen profession of hairdressing, working instead as a barber. 

Findings of the tribunal

Upon hearing the complaints, Tribunal Senior Member Scahill and General Member Newman commented that although the harassing behaviour was not the worst they had ever seen, it had clearly impacted upon the apprentice in a very significant way and had caused him to change his future career plans. 

The nature of some of the inappropriate behaviour was found to be sexual harassment, particularly the physical contact and comments regarding being a 'bitch' and a 'gay couple'. Moreover, the significant disparity in power between an employer or senior employee and an apprentice was such that the worker was reasonably and clearly intimidated, humiliated and harassed. 

The employing business was also held vicariously liable for the conduct on the basis that it had failed to ensure a workplace free of harassment and had failed to appropriately respond to the worker's complaints. 

The worker was awarded compensation comprising:

  • $5,000 in general damages for the sexual harassment by the employer
  • $10,000 in damages for the trainer's sexual harassment
  • $15,000 for victimisation

As this case demonstrates sexual harassment and inappropriate conduct can occur in any workplace, and between any gender. If you are concerned about a case of potential harassment at your organisation, contact us for assistance. We offer both supported and full workplace investigation services. 

How Medical Evidence Supports an Unbiased Investigation

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, November 01, 2017

When claims of abuse in care come to light, strong emotions can arise for all concerned. It is not surprising that when an unexplained injury is uncovered, family members, care staff, and employers will want immediate answers. 

However, it is vital that employers maintain clear thinking and remain objective when investigating allegations of abuse in care. 

Engaging an external workplace investigator can be helpful in maintaining neutrality, and conducting a detailed, unbiased investigation. Medical evidence is also highly relevant in these situations as it is collected in a scientific manner, without bias towards a particular party.

zero bias when investigating assaults 

In emotionally charged situations, family and friends may understandably demand immediate answers about the cause of a loved one's unexplained injury. When abuse appears to have occurred against a vulnerable individual, it is a disturbing thought for all involved. 

Workplace investigators understand that despite - or perhaps because of - such high emotions, the investigation must be coordinated and managed with an extremely steady hand. 

An experienced investigator will be acutely aware of the rules of evidence and how important the accurate collection and management of the evidence will become, should the matter be taken on review. Accordingly, from the very start of an investigation, it is understood that all information, statements, workplace documents, interviews and clinical data is to be gathered with a view to fairness, objectivity and clarity.

assessing medical evidence

Family members of the vulnerable person affected by the unexplained injury may not be aware of the detail of the circumstances of the injury. 

Factors such as the site of an unexplained injury, medical history and medications, client age, frailty and demographics, unique aspects of accommodation and access, care routines, staffing variables and medical documentation - to name a few - will all form part of the complex medical evidence matrix when evidence is being assessed. 

Delays in getting the victim medically examined or a delay in reporting incidents can often mean that the medical expert may need to rely on descriptions provided by witnesses or photographs taken of the injury. This will significantly diminish the quality of the medical evidence. Poor quality photographs and descriptions will make it even more difficult to obtain any reliable medical evidence. 

The standard of proof in investigations such as these is on the balance of probabilities. The case of Briginshaw v Briginshaw (1938) 60 CLR 336 is generally regarded as authority for the idea that on the balance of probabilities, if a finding is likely to produce grave consequences, the evidence should be of high probative value.

In cases of alleged assaults in care, professional investigators will ensure that all evidence - medical and general - is collected and reported on with utmost care. This approach ensures that irrelevant factors are not given weight. 

When the medical evidence is combined with overall procedural fairness across the investigation, the resulting investigative report into an alleged assault will be of high quality and robust in terms of the weighing of the evidence and findings.

    why an impartial investigation is important

    When investigating abuse in care, the standard of evidence obtained is a crucial factor. By including sound medical evidence, the investigator brings an unbiased and highly detailed viewpoint to the allegations of assault. This expertise can mean the difference between a fair and objective investigative report and one that is tinged by the emotionally charged nature of the situation. 

    Should the matter be taken on review, the court will apply the 'reasonable person test' to the facts and evidence available. If the investigation is not fair, clear and comprehensive, then the court may find the resulting report does not meet this standard. 

    If your organisation requires a workplace investigation into an unexplained injury, our team can assist with either full or supported investigation services. WISE are highly experienced in the complexities of investigating unexplained injuries in care settings, including the assessment of medical evidence.

    When the Line Blurs: Restrictive Practices vs Assault

    Harriet Witchell - Wednesday, June 14, 2017

    It is well-known that certain industries, particularly those involving disability or aged care services, have a higher than average level of client-facing risk. This is in part because consumers of these services generally have higher levels of physical needs, and may also have difficulties expressing themselves clearly or consistently.  

    As a result of these unique care requirements, occasionally situations may arise where restrictive practices are necessary either for the client's own safety or to protect another person. 

    However, employers and care workers must ensure that their actions do not exceed reasonable restrictive practices and slip into behaviours or acts, which could be considered assault.   


    According to the Australian Law Reform Commission, the definition of 'restrictive practices' are actions which effectively restrict the rights or freedom of movement of a person with a disability.

    This could include physical restraint (such as holding somebody down), mechanical restraint (for example, with the use of a device intendend to restrict, prevent or subdue movement), chemical restraint (using sedative drugs), or social restraint (verbal interactions or threats of sanctions). 

    Restrictive practices are intended to used in situations where a person is demonstrating concerning, or potentially threatening behaviours. In the disability services context, this may involve people with significant intellectual or psychological impairments, but no or limited physical impairments, meaning that threats of violence could be credible and have significant effects.

    Although restrictive practices are currently legal in Australia, according to the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) factsheet, they do not currently constitute 'best practice' for disability support.


    As with any situation where the personal liberty of people is affected, the use of restrictive practices can blur into the use of inappropriate levels of force and potentially even expose the disability worker to accusations of assault. 

    While the greatest concern with restrictive practices would be the possibility of disabled persons being intentionally abused, it is very easy for the line between restrictive practices to be unintentionally blurred. 

    Although assault is defined slightly differently in each Australian state and territory under criminal law legislation, broadly, the offence involves circumstances where intentional and unwanted physical force or contact is used against another person. It can also include verbal behaviours, which are considered threatening. 

    While the line between the use of restrictive practices and assault may not be immediately clear, conduct is unlikely to be considered to be an assault if it can be demonstrated that the actions taken, even if they involved the use of physical force, were necessary to avoid violence or any risk of harm.


      The provision of disability services is a challenging industry at the best of times. It's important to ensure that your team is using restrictive practices appropriately and in the right circumstances to avoid any allegations of assault. 

      Any employers who are advised of accusations of assault must undertake a full workplace investigation in order to fulfil their dual obligations to their employees and to their clients. 

      At WISE Workplace, we have experience in the disability and aged care sectors, and our team can assist in all aspects of workplace investigations.