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Young workers and sexual harassment – what are my rights?

Young female workers under 30 years old are particularly at risk of sexual harassment in the workplace. It can be tricky to know how to handle an uncomfortable situation, especially if it’s your first job or if you are new in the workplace. Here are some facts about your rights, and some common scenarios to help you to know what to do.

Sexual harassment – what is it?

Sexual harassment is conduct of a sexual nature that makes you feel offended, humiliated or intimidated, that a reasonable person would anticipate would make you feel that way.

Sexual harassment includes conduct like:

  • An unwelcome sexual request or advance (ie hitting on you)
  • Staring or leering
  • Jokes or comments that are suggestive or sexual
  • Sexually explicit photos or pictures
  • Texts, messages, or emails of a sexual nature
  • Personal questions about your body, private life or sex life
  • Unwelcome touching, such as purposely brushing up against you
  • Sexually explicit physical contact
  • Insulting or teasing you about something sex-related

Your workplace should protect you from sexual harassment at work. This includes from co-workers, customers or clients. When starting a job, you should ask your employer about their workplace harassment policies. If you foresee any risks, for example, you are worried about being rostered on alone in a shop, discuss with your employer what can be done to ensure your safety at all times.

If you tell your employer that you have been sexually harassed, or they should have known that it was happening, they must stop the harassment and prevent it happening again. They are also vicariously responsible for the conduct of their staff (that is, legally responsible for their behaviour) unless they show that they have taken reasonable precautions to prevent sexual harassment and to properly deal with any complaints.

If you complain about sexual harassment, and then you have your shifts cut, or you are demoted or fired, you should call us for advice. You have a right to safe workplace and if you suffer a loss for making a complaint about that right, you could make a General Protections claim in the Fair Work Commission. Note that if you are fired, there are only 21 days from the end of your employment to make this claim.

You can also make a complaint to the Equal Opportunity Commission and Australian Human Rights Commission about the sexual harassment. There time limits of 12 months and 24 months respectively for these claims.

If you have been sexually harassed at work, firstly make sure you are safe and have support, and call us or your Union for legal advice about your individual situation.

Here are some common situations. Have a read and think about what you would do in these situations.


Olivia’s boss Mark creeps her out. He owns the small law firm at which she works as a paralegal. Olivia often has to work closely with Mark and others in the team. He is known to be a “joker” so often his behaviour is laughed off by Olivia’s co-workers. He often makes inappropriate comments about her appearance, like calling her “sexy legs” when she wears a new dress. He asks about her boyfriends and jokes about her dating history. On several occasions Mark has come up behind her and rubbed her shoulders, saying she looks stressed and should lighten up.

Olivia is sick of it and often feels too anxious to go to work. She doesn’t know who to complain to since Mark is her boss.

Even if a workplace has a culture of jokes and pranks, Mark’s jokes and comments are sexual harassment. Unwelcome touching, such as a shoulder rub, is also sexual harassment.

If Olivia feels too anxious or unwell to attend work, she should seek help from her doctor and with her doctor’s support, consider a worker’s compensation claim. 

Olivia could see if any of her co-workers feel the same way about Mark’s behaviour and complain as a team. Olivia could arrange a meeting with Mark about his behaviour, with a support person, or could write an email to him outlining her concerns. If the workplace has a policy on workplace harassment, she should refer to it. Olivia has the right to a workplace free of sexual harassment and her concerns should be taken seriously. Once the workplace is notified of her complaint, they should take steps to prevent it happening again, even if the boss is the culprit.

Olivia could also lodge a claim in the Equal Opportunity Commission or the Australian Human Rights Commission about the sexual harassment.

If you are in a similar situation, call us or your Union for advice.


Anika works in a front desk role at a wholesaler. One particular customer makes Anika feel extremely uncomfortable. He loiters around the front desk longer than he needs to, leans too close to her, and makes suggestive comments. He calls her “gorgeous” and always compliments her. Once, he came into the warehouse near closing time and waited outside for her in the carpark, as she left work for the day. He told her he couldn’t stop thinking about her and wanted to take her out for a drink.

The customer is extremely important to the business and Anika’s boss has previously told her to be nice to him. What should Anika do?

It is not okay that Anika feels unsafe at work. She has the right to a safe workplace. Anika should report the customer’s behaviour to her boss. If her boss knows about the harassment, he must act to stop it and prevent it from happening again. It doesn’t matter if the customer is a regular, a big spender or a friend of the boss.

Anika should put her complaint to her boss in writing, and keep a diary of when the customer harasses her. If at any time, Anika feels physically unsafe, she should seek immediate help. If Anika’s boss fails to do anything to stop the harassment, she could also lodge a complaint in the Equal Opportunity Commission or the Australian Human Rights Commission.

Trina works in the kitchen of a fast food restaurant. It is extremely busy and the team has to work closely together to get orders ready. One Saturday night, it was flat out and Trina was bending over to get more takeaway containers out of the cupboard. Her co-worker was rushing an order through to the drive through window and said “Oi, get your arse out the way!” and slapped her bum in a joking manner as he went by.

Trina felt embarrassed and shocked but laughed it off. She has always had a good relationship with this co-worker and doesn’t want to get him in trouble. It has only happened once, and she isn’t sure if she should say something to her manager or not.

Even though this was a one-off event, it is still harassment. If Trina feels comfortable to do so, she could approach her co-worker and tell him that his behaviour made her feel uncomfortable.

If Trina doesn’t want to speak to her co-worker personally, she could approach her manager or HR department to report the behaviour.

If Trina chooses not to do anything at this stage, she should make a note of the time and date of the harassment and keep a diary if anything further happens, in case she wishes to take action in the future.


Paige works as a waiter in a function centre. She went out on a few dates with her co-worker, Tom, but it didn’t work out. They agreed to be friends, but Tom keeps acting inappropriately towards Paige. He brushes up against her when they are both working in the bar, and jokes about her wanting to have sex with him. Once, he tried to kiss her when they were alone in the storeroom. Paige has told him to stop but Tom doesn’t listen.

Even if you have had a previous relationship with someone at work, you do not have to put up with sexual harassment from that person. You may decide to try to speak to the person harassing you and explain that it is not appropriate in the workplace. If you don’t feel comfortable doing this, or if they won’t stop, you should report the harassment to your boss. Your boss should take your complaint seriously and take steps to prevent it from happening again.

Paige could make a complaint to the Equal Opportunity Commission or the Australian Human Rights Commission about the harassment. If her boss cuts her shifts instead of addressing Tom’s behaviour, she could make a General Protections claim in the Fair Work Commission.


If you have been sexually harassed at work, firstly make sure you are safe and have support, and call us or your Union for legal advice about your situation.


How can the Working Women’s Centre Help?

We can:

  • Provide advice and information about sexual harassment
  • Inform you of the complaint procedure
  • Help you make a complaint
  • Advocate on your behalf up to and including conciliation


Where else can I go for help?

Other organisations that may be able to help include your union, the Australian Human Rights Commission and the Equal Opportunity Commission. 

If you are not already a member of a union, ring SA Unions on (08) 8279 2222 to find out which union to join.

Australian Human Rights Commission: The Respect@Work Portal has resources for both employees and employers. Phone:  1300 369 711 Web:

Equal Opportunity Commission: Phone: (08) 8207 1977 Web: 


Making a Sexual Harassment complaint is a serious matter.


Other service providers

  • Yarrow Place 
    Yarrow Place
    Rape and Sexual Assault Service is a service for anyone who has been sexually assaulted.
    Services include:
    24 Hour Crisis Response Service for recent sexual assault—this includes support from a social worker, medical care by a doctor or nurse, and collection of forensic evidence for people who are considering legal action.
    — Professional counselling and advocacy for recent and past sexual assault clients as well as their support people.

    Phone: (08) 8226 8777 or (Toll free) 1800 817 421


  • Uniting SA Sexual Abuse & Sexual Assault Counselling for young people
    You can access this service if you are between the ages of 12 and 25, and homeless or at risk of homelessness.

    Phone: (08) 8202 5060

  • 1800RESPECT1800RESPECT is a national 24 hour online and telephone service offering counselling and support to anyone experiencing domestic and family violence and/or sexual assault and their family and friends.Freecall 1800 737 732 (24 hours)

If your life or someone else’s life is in immediate danger, phone 000 (triple zero).

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