Discrimination and harassment

.. what are they? What do these terms mean?

What is discrimination?

Discrimination means treating someone differently, usually less favourably, because of some personal characteristic they have (eg: their race, sex or disability). Discrimination may be direct or indirect.

There are both Federal and State laws which make it illegal to discriminate against people in areas such as education, accommodation and employment.

Direct Discrimination: is treating someone unequally (or unfairly) simply because they belong to a particular group or category of people. For example: it is direct discrimination to refuse to employ someone because he or she is Aboriginal (or any other race), or because the person is a woman.

Indirect Discrimination: happens when there is a requirement (rule, policy, practice, etc) that is the same for everyone - but has more of an effect on a particular group. Unless the requirement is "reasonable in all circumstances", it will be indirectly discriminatory. Even if the employer did not mean to discriminate, - it is still not right.

An example of this was the height requirement for the police force.. This kept many women out because not many women were tall enough to qualify. It also meant that it was hard for people from certain backgrounds (with a smaller build) to get accepted. The requirement has been changed.

Another example of indirect discrimination is where an employer promoted people based on how long they had worked there, and how senior they were, rather than how good they were at their job. This tends to disadvantage women because they are more likely to have left the job for at least some time because of family responsibilities.

Under Victoria's Equal Opportunity Act 2010, it is unlawful to discriminate on the basis of:

Disability, age, sex (gender), marital status, parental status, carer status, race, physical features, political belief or activity, religious belief or activity, lawful sexual activity/sexual orientation, industrial activity, personal association with a person who is identified by reference to any of the above attributes, sexual harassment

Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO)

Equal employment is when there is no discrimination in any area of employment, like recruitment, training, promotions and so on. In the ideal situation everything is fair for all employees and possible employees regardless of race, sex or disability.

Affirmative Action (AA)

Affirmative action means taking positive steps to achieve equal employment opportunity for groups who have been disadvantaged by discrimination in the past. It means finding what has been preventing people getting equal treatment and changing it.

Harassment - What is it?

Harassment is a type of discrimination - but it is often very personal. It includes sexual harassment. Some examples of harassment are:

Verbal Non-verbal Physical
sexual/suggestive comments putting offensive material on walls unnecessary physical contact (pinching, brushing up against, touching, etc)
imitating someone's accent racist/sexist cartoons indecent assault or attempted assault
offensive jokes, unsuitable language ignoring someonepushing or shoving
repeated personal questions not sharing informationputting a hand in someone's pocket
threats/insults offensive gestures unwelcome practical jokes

Someone sexually harasses another person if:

  1. he/she makes an unwelcome sexual advance (or request for sexual favours); or
  2. engages in other unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature

in circumstances in which a reasonable person, having regard to all the circumstances , would believe that the person harassed would be offended, humiliated or intimidated. The sorts of things which should be considered would be the age, ethnic background, religion and so on of the person.

It does not matter whether the person intended to sexually harass or not. It gives people the right to react to behaviours in different ways. Each of us is different - we have the right to respond in our own way - even if it is not the same as others. What may be funny to one person may be offensive to another - and that's OK.

Ask these questions to try to work out if something might be sexual harassment:

  1. Was it unwelcome?
  2. Was it of a sexual nature?
  3. Would a reasonable person have expected it to be offensive, humiliating or intimidating?

What can a rep do about discrimination or harassment in the workplace?

  • Treat it like any other OHS issue in the first instance.
  • Contact your union for assistance - issues such as these can get very complicated.

See Also:

Last amended September 2016

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