Sexual harassment and bullying in the workplace is unacceptable and can be unlawful under anti-discrimination, equal employment opportunity, workplace relations and human rights laws.

The first steps in ensuring our workplaces are safe places is to understand what bullying and harassment looks like, to recognise the cultures that enable it, and to understand the costs to individuals and practices.

This article was developed as part of a set that draws on the Champions of Change material with the aim of sharing knowledge and experiences within the architecture and built environment professions. The challenges of bullying and harassment will continue to evolve as new standards are set, new and better systems are introduced, and accountability is required alongside compassionate leadership.

The Champions of Change Coalition makes a compelling argument that sexual harassment must be addressed as an issue of leadership and organisational culture, and that framing must shift from a focus on workplace grievances to one of health and safety. This is clearly articulated in the ‘Disrupting the System report. The companion article ‘How to prevent and respond to sexual harassment in the workplace’ provides a summary account of the steps leaders and organisations can take, along with links to a suite of excellent resources to support this.

This article assembles materials and definitions from a broad range of sources to support increased understanding. It concludes with an outline of a zero tolerance approach and a simple framework to support positive workplace cultures.


We must not look away

I call on all employers to join me in creating safe, gender-equal and inclusive workplaces, no matter their industry or size. This will require transparency, accountability and leadership. It will also require a shift from the current reactive model that requires complaints from individuals, to a proactive model, which will require positive actions from employers.

— Kate Jenkins, Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Australian Human Rights Commission, Respect@Work: Sexual Harassment National Inquiry Report (2020)

Architectural practices and individuals within them have ethical, moral and legal responsibilities to ensure that practice and professional habits and processes do not enable or tolerate bullying and harassment of any kind. Sexual harassment and bullying in the workplace are unlawful under anti-discrimination, equal employment opportunity, workplace relations and human rights laws. Compliance with legal frameworks is essential, but ensuring these behaviours do not occur – and responding robustly and meaningfully if they do – is first and foremost a matter of leadership and culture.

As practices, we are responsible for initiating sound cultures that prioritise safety, transparency and equality. As individuals, we must equip ourselves with the tools to identify bullying and harassment, the awareness of how to speak up safely and effectively, and the knowledge to direct those in need to the right support. Architects change places every day. As a profession, we must boldly and proactively change our workplaces to foster safe and respectful environments for all.

Bullying and harassment are uncomfortable topics, but we must engage with them openly and sensitively. We must not pretend that these behaviours do not happen to ‘us’. Silence invites environments that allow bullying and sexual harassment to take hold. Individuals who experience these behaviours often feel isolated and powerless, and may be at risk of anxiety, depression and suicide. Our studios experience the impacts too, leading to low morale, increased absenteeism and poor productivity.

As a profession, we must recognise that past approaches to address sexual harassment and bullying have been insufficient. Unacceptable and unlawful behaviours are all-too-often normalised, avoided or left unchallenged; power imbalances and gender inequality place women and other marginalised people at additional risk; and reporting systems may be missing or overly focused on protecting the practice’s reputation at the expense of the individual experiencing bullying or harassment. Relying on individuals experiencing problems to report unacceptable behaviour further increases their vulnerability. This sets the scene for systemic under-reporting, with people in fear of being labelled ‘difficult’ and jeopardising career opportunities in a small and tightly connected industry. We must all step up by supporting those experiencing harassment and bullying, by protecting those voicing concern, and by shifting these patterns.

Leadership and sustained commitment are pivotal in creating positive workplace cultures that have zero tolerance of harassment and bullying. These cultures are scaffolded by clear policy and well-articulated processes, which include a range of reporting options. Education and training play a significant role to build practice competence and trust in a system that safeguards all employees to be supported and protected.


Understanding bullying in the workplace

Workplace bullying is defined in section 789FD of the Fair Work Amendment Act 2013. The Fair Work Commission states bullying at work occurs when:

  • a person or a group of people behaves unreasonably towards a worker or a group of workers at work and
  • this happens more than once and
  • this creates a risk to health and safety.

Bullying can take place between a worker and manager, co-workers or workers and another person in the workplace, such as a client. It can be face-to-face, online, over the phone, via emails or text messages.

Reasonable management action

The Fair Work Commission emphasises that workplace bullying does not include reasonable management action. This acknowledges that managers and employers may need to act if an employee is not doing their job well, and includes:

  • performance management
  • disciplinary action for misconduct
  • telling an employee that their work performance is not satisfactory
  • telling an employee that their behaviour is not appropriate
  • taking action to maintain reasonable workplace standards
  • Source: About Reasonable Management Action, Fair Work Commission

Examples of workplace bullying

Workplace bullying includes behaviours such as:

  • Abusive, insulting or offensive language or comments including belittling, demeaning or patronising someone, especially in front of others
  • Unjustified or unreasonable criticism or complaints
  • Singling someone out and treating them differently from others
  • Withholding information, supervision, consultation, training or resources deliberately to prevent someone doing their job
  • Setting unreasonable timelines or constantly changing deadlines
  • Spreading misinformation or malicious rumours
  • Changing work arrangements to deliberately inconvenience someone
  • Setting tasks that are unreasonably below or above someone’s skill level
  • Humiliating, shouting at or threatening someone
  • Excluding someone from taking part in activities that relate to their work
  • Refusal to acknowledge contributions and achievements (such as finding out that a person’s work – and the credit for it – has been stolen or plagiarised)
  • Initiation or hazing – where someone is made to do humiliating or inappropriate things
  • Teasing or playing practical jokes
  • Refusing annual leave, sick leave, and especially compassionate leave without reasonable grounds
  • Playing mind games, ganging up or other psychological harassment
  • Intimidation, making someone feel less important and undervalued
  • Constant unconstructive criticism
  • Suppression of ideas
  • Overloading a person with work or allowing insufficient time for completion and criticising the employee’s work in relation to this.

Sources: Workplace bullying, Heads Up; and Bullying and Harassment in the workplace, Law Council of Australia


Understanding sexual harassment in the workplace

Defining discrimination and harassment

In the legal context, harassment is prohibited under anti-discrimination legislation. The Australian Human Rights Commission summarises the roles of different legislation as follows.

The Sex Discrimination Act 1984 prohibits harassment in the workplace by employers, co-workers and other ‘workplace participants’, such as partners, commission agents and contract workers. Sexual harassment is broadly defined as unwelcome sexual conduct that a reasonable person would anticipate would offend, humiliate or intimidate the person harassed.

The Disability Discrimination Act 1992 prohibits harassment in the workplace based on or linked to a person’s disability or the disability of an associate.

The Racial Discrimination Act 1975 prohibits offensive behaviour based on racial hatred. Racial hatred is defined as something done in public that offends, insults or humiliates a person or group of people because of their race, colour or national or ethnic origin.

Whereas bullying is repeated behaviour , a one-off incident can constitute harassment.

Defining sexual harassment

Sexual harassment is unwelcome sexual behaviour, which could be expected to make a person feel offended, humiliated or intimidated. There are different types of harassing behaviour, including:

  • Gender harassment, behaviours that convey hostility, objectification, exclusion, or second-class status about members of one gender
  • Unwanted sexual attention, unwelcome verbal or physical sexual advances, which can include assault
    Sexual coercion, when favourable treatment is conditioned on sexual activity

The distinctions between the types of harassment are important, particularly because many people do not realise that gender harassment is a form of sexual harassment.

Sources: Sex Discrimination Act 1984 and What is Sexual Harassment?, Law Council of Australia

When and where can sexual harassment occur?

Comcare has extensive information on sexual harassment in the workplace, including when and where it can occur. Sexual harassment can be physical, verbal, non-verbal or via technology and it can take place inside and outside working hours. It can also be either direct and targeted at an individual; or ambient, with a general level of sexual harassment in an environment – overt, covert or subtle. All cases are harmful.

During work hours:

  • The usual workplace, such as the office, site, or online if working from home
  • Site visits
  • External meetings or conferences
  • Training, courses or workshops
  • Social gatherings, such as birthday lunches or team celebrations
  • At client or customer workplaces or homes.

Outside work hours:

  • Work-related events or trips, such as corporate functions, weekend trips, workshops or training courses
  • Work-related social activities, such as Christmas parties, office celebrations, client events or functions
  • External meetings or site visits
  • Client or customer workplaces or homes.

Examples of sexual harassment

Examples of what sexual harassment can look like in the workplace include:

  • Unwelcome touching, hugging, cornering or kissing
  • Inappropriate staring or leering
  • Sexual gestures, indecent exposure or inappropriate display of the body
  • Sexually suggestive comments or jokes
  • Sexually explicit pictures, posters or gifts
  • Repeated or inappropriate invitations to go out on dates
  • Intrusive questions about a worker’s private life or physical appearance
  • Inappropriate physical contact
  • Being followed, watched or someone loitering nearby
  • Requests or pressure for sex or other sexual acts
  • Actual or attempted rape or sexual assault
  • Indecent phone calls, including leaving sexually explicit messages on voicemail or an answering machine
  • Sexually explicit comments made in emails, SMS messages or on social media
  • Repeated or inappropriate advances on email, social networking websites or internet chat rooms
  • Sharing or threatening to share intimate images or film without consent
  • Any other unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature that occurred online or via some form of technology
  • Displaying images of a sexual nature around the workplace
  • Unnecessary familiarity – e.g. deliberately brushing up against you
  • An insult or a taunt of a sexual nature

Sources: What is sexual harassment at work? Fair Work Commission; Sexual Harassment in the Workplace, Fair Work Ombudsman; Workplace Sexual Harassment, Comcare.


Environments that enable sexual harassment & bullying to thrive

Drawing on a list developed by Heads Up, the Champions of Change Architecture Group has identified the following workplace patterns, typical to many architectural practices, which can support a culture in which sexual harassment and bullying may occur and be allowed to thrive.

Organisational culture and psychological safety

  • Organisational culture where sexual harassment and bullying is tolerated, unobserved or ignored
  • Acceptance of unreasonable workplace behaviours or lack of behavioural standards
  • Organisations with ineffective reporting processes with limited to no consequences

Workplace composition and leadership

  • Under-representation of women in leadership roles
  • Concentration of men in senior positions, male-dominated workforce or client base
  • Hierarchical structures, leaders with unquestioned authority
  • Directive leadership styles, especially those that exclude employees in decision making
  • Laissez-faire, autocratic, abusive or demeaning leadership
  • Workplaces that protect ‘high-value’ employees
  • Young workers, graduates, workers in a minority group, casual workers, new workers, injured workers, workers on return-to-work plans, volunteers, work experience students and interns

Workplace features and environment

  • Pay disparity, especially when gendered
  • Isolated work areas
  • Open display of sexual materials
  • Travel and overnight stays, expectation to attend events with alcohol
  • High job demands, limited job control, restructuring, role conflict or ambiguity, job insecurity
  • Poor communication, isolation, low levels of support, work group hostility
  • High staff turnover
  • Lack of resources, inappropriate work scheduling, unreasonable performance measures or timeframes

Source: Workplace Bullying, Heads Up

For a complementary document from the employer’s perspective, refer to “What to look for when scanning for sexual harassment in the workplace” in the Champions of Change Coalition’s Disrupting the System: Sexual Harassment: Practical resources and tools.


Costs of bullying & sexual harassment

The costs of bullying and harassment are pervasive, long lasting and cumulative. They accrue to individuals, practices and the profession as a whole. They include indirect costs such as the severe psychological toll on employees; and reputational costs, affecting practice brand and trust, driving away clients, investors and potential talent.

Individual costs

Bullying and sexual harassment harms the individuals who are targeted and anyone witnessing the behaviour. The effects can be both physical and psychological, and vary from individual to individual. They can also have wider reaching effects, with social costs to family and the wider community. Safe Work Australia and Heads Up both outline some of the costs of bullying and sexual harassment in the workplace:

  • loss of self-esteem, confidence and withdrawal
  • distress, anxiety, panic attacks or sleep disturbance
  • depression
  • physical illness, such as muscular tension, headaches and digestive problems
  • ongoing illness such as cardiovascular disease, musculoskeletal disorders, immune deficiency and gastrointestinal disorders, often as a result of stress
  • reduced work performance
  • feelings of isolation, social isolation or family dislocation
  • physical injuries as a result of assault
  • negative impacts on a person’s job or career
  • increased risk of suicide

Source: Preventing workplace sexual harassment, Safe Work Australia; Workplace Bullying, Heads Up

Business costs

Beyond the moral – and legal – imperative, addressing these behaviours makes good business sense.

In 2018, workplace sexual harassment was conservatively estimated to have cost the Australian economy $3.8 billion, including approximately $2.6 billion in lost productivity. The Productivity Commission estimates that bullying costs the Australian economy up to $36 billion each year, with the average case costing employers between $17,000 and $24,000 in addition to hefty legal penalties, which can range to up to $3 million.

In addition to legal and lost productivity costs, practices must consider the cost of absenteeism, high staff turnover, associated recruitment and training costs.

Prevention is more cost effective than intervention, mediation or legal costs. While context must be taken into consideration and practices vary in sizes, very few workplaces are untouched by sexual harassment and bullying. The bottom line is that we are all paying a cost for harassment and bullying.

This table, adapted from Deloitte Access Economics (2020) by the Champions of Change Architecture Group, demonstrates the potential financial costs of instances of sexual harassment and bullying for practices.

Financial costs of Harassment table

A zero tolerance approach

Zero tolerance means proactively eradicating harassment and bullying behaviour, in all its forms. It aims to foster physically and psychologically safe environments, open communication, greater bystander intervention, early resolution of issues and behaviour change.

Zero tolerance signals a practice’s commitment to not accept undesirable behaviour and to treat any incidents very seriously. It indicates that there will be consequences for any person found to have harassed another. These actions and consequences will be appropriate and proportionate to the severity of the transgression, the impact of the offender’s actions and the wishes of the person affected.

This does not mean responding in the same way to every incident or committing to automatic dismissal, regardless of context. It is important to note that just as responses that are too weak can permit sexual harassment and bullying to continue, responses that are seen as disproportionately severe to complicated and multi-faceted human behaviour can be counter-productive – they can deter people from coming forward, increase backlash against those striving for gender equality or undermine a practice’s credibility if actions fail to meet rigid standards.


Framework for positive workplace cultures

VicHealth has developed a framework of practical actions to build positive workplace cultures that help prevent bullying, harassment and discrimination. The Champions of Change Architecture Group has adapted this for architectural practices as follows:

Leaders demonstrate commitment to a gender-equal workplace culture
  • Demonstrate a commitment to preventing, identifying and responding to incidents
  • Model respectful behaviour
  • Ensure reports of inappropriate behaviour are taken seriously and addressed promptly and fairly
  • Maintain regular practice touch points to keep this topic at the top of the agenda
The organisation and staff understand and manage risks
  • Have a clear and effective sexual harassment and bullying prevention plan and communicate that no level of management is exempt
  • Treat sexual harassment and bullying as a work health and safety risk
  • Take steps to minimise and control workplace risk factors
  • Manage proactively, allowing for prevention and early intervention
  • Ensure that staff understand how and when to report, and are encouraged to do so
  • Establish a continuous cycle of monitoring, review and improvement
Safe systems of work are in place that reduce risks and promote staff wellbeing
  • Provide resources, information and training for staff
  • Ensure staff understand their roles and responsibilities, and have the opportunity to provide regular feedback on these
  • Regularly review and monitor staff workloads
  • Consult and communicate effectively through periods of change
  • Discipline people who engage in inappropriate behaviour before it escalates
The practice has effective mechanisms for the management of people
  • Ensure people management frameworks cover the continuum of employment, from new starters through to those leaving
  • Train leaders and managers in effective leadership styles and management skills on a regular basis
  • Ensure performance management processes provide a robust framework for communicating about performance and providing constructive feedback
  • Ensure support mechanisms are in place for managers, including new and acting managers
Staff access appropriate, consistent and effective training
  • Train all staff in what constitutes sexual harassment and bullying, its drivers and impacts
  • Train all staff in how to report inappropriate behaviours
  • Provide all staff with refresher training
  • Regularly review relevant training programs and assess their content, quality and effectiveness
Workplace relationships are respectful and built on trust
  • Clearly communicate expected standards of behaviour so they are well understood
  • Develop sexual harassment and bullying policies and procedures in consultation with all staff
  • Support staff to speak out against inappropriate behaviour in a safe and confidential way
  • Ensure there are several reporting options and several ‘go-to’ people of all genders
The practice embraces diversity and is committed to inclusion
  • Actively promote diversity and inclusion, and acknowledge the value of different perspectives
  • Ensure that recruitment and employment processes comply with relevant legislation and ensure that equal employment opportunity is provided
  • Establish other policies that reflect your practice’s commitment to workplace equity (for example, flexible work arrangements, parental leave)

Every employer, regardless of the size of their business, has a duty to take all reasonable steps to prevent sexual har­assment and bullying in the workplace. For detail about how to achieve this based in the Champions of Change Disrupting the System approach, refer to ‘How to prevent and respond to sexual harassment in the workplace’.


For more information on incorporating preventing and responding to sexual harassment, read the companion piece How to prevent and respond to sexual harassment in the workplace, watch the recording of the On Harassment discussion, and refer to the range of other articles published on harassment by Parlour.

This article was developed by Monica Edwards, with editorial input from Susie Ashworth and is based in the Champions of Change Architects Group Sexual Harassment Toolkit. Contributors to the toolkit include: Neil Stonell (Grimshaw), Donal Challoner (Nettleton Tribe), Thihoa Gill (Grimshaw), Marcus Leask (Hayball), Sofie Pringle (Peddle Thorp), Karyn Dodman (Tzannes), Yuyuen Leow (Hayball), Maryanne McGirr (DesignInc), Julian Furzer (DKO), Gemma MacDonald (DKO) and Julia Koutroulis (DKO).

Stepping Up is a collaboration between Parlour, the ACA and the Champions of Change Architecture Group.