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A recent study, published in Gender, Work and Organization, suggests that customer-perpetrated sexual harassment is prevalent across the Australian service sector, including the retail industry.

The study, titled “‘But it’s your job to be friendly’: Employees coping with and contesting sexual harassment from customers in the service industry,” suggests that 9 per cent of all workplace sexual harassment in Australia is perpetrated by clients or customers.

However, in service industries such as retail, it is anticipated that the number is substantially higher, with studies from the United States indicating that 40 per cent of female employees had experienced some form of unwanted sexual advance from a customer while at work.

In Australia, despite the belief that sexual harassment has declined in workplaces since the 1980s, the reality is that there has been no significant change in incident rates in more than three decades.

Data produced by the Australian Human Rights Commission indicates that in the past five years, 25 per cent of female employees, and 16 per cent of male employees, have experienced some form of sexual advance at work that has left them feeling offended, humiliated, or intimidated .

However, what has been overlooked in the Australian context until recently, has been the specific issue of customer-perpetrated sexual harassment.

This is important for the retail industry because customer interaction and service is fundamental to many frontline roles.

Australian based research has found that a significant issue for the service sector is that some employees view sexual advances from customers as a “routine or regular part of their work,” and as a result, rarely make complaints about behaviour that they consider to be offensive or intimidating.

Essentially, in an industry that expects staff to be friendly, respectful and accommodating to customers, it can often be difficult for individuals to know the “boundary between the attributes expected of customer service work and their personal feelings about what constitutes unwanted sexual attention from customers” .

Providing employees with knowledge and tools that will enable them to identify the characteristics of customer-perpetrated harassment, and appropriate responses to this behaviour, is critical in maintaining a workplace that is respectful and safe for all team members.

In Australia, a 2008 review of the Sex Discrimination Act 1984, expanded the definition of what constitutes the provision of goods and services, so that unwanted sexual advances by a customer could be included under the definition of workplace sexual harassment.

For this reason, employers have a legal obligation to provide employees with a work environment that is safe, and where there is no sexual harassment, including team members being targeted by customers.

To further discuss this issue, or other legal matters relating to your retail outlet, please contact National Retail Association Legal on 1800 738 245.