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Sexual harassment seen as ‘just another day’ in retail

By Kace O'Neill | |6 minute read
Sexual Harassment Seen As Just Another Day In Retail

A recent report funded by Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety has highlighted the pervasive and persistent nature of sexual harassment in the retail industry.

Customer-perpetuated sexual harassment is a corrosive problem that is occurring right across the retail industry. It is an issue that is preserved by irrational retail norms that uplift customer sovereignty over the safety of workers’ physical and mental wellbeing.

A new report from the Centre for Gender Equality at Work has revealed some of the shocking truths about the treatment that everyday workers in the retail industry are exposed to, with customer-perpetrated sexual harassment being a key subject.


According to the report, customer-perpetuated harassment can take many forms, some being more subtle than others. It can be hard-to-confront forms such as customers leering or making lewd comments, staring, hovering, or inappropriate (yet not overly sexual) comments. These forms make it difficult for workers to speak out, the authors noted, as some can dismiss the actions as “innocent” or “banter”, making it challenging for the worker to confront or report.

The report revealed that 69.9 per cent of women respondents received sexually suggestive comments or jokes in multiple forms. Over 51 per cent of the same group were also asked intrusive questions about their private life or their physical appearance multiple times.

In terms of the staring and leering that can often be dismissed, 46.6 per cent of women respondents also noted that they have faced these encounters multiple times.

Following that sentiment, it was cited in the report that a number of workers expressed a lack of certainty about whether their almost daily experience of these less overt actions, yet serious forms of sexual harassment, would be taken seriously by their employers.

Industry-wide norms around the mentality of “the customer is always right” can be a significant enabler to inappropriate behaviour and negate workers from speaking out, the authors went on. That term was indicated by many retail workers to explain the challenges posed by interactions with customers who perpetuated forms of sexual harassment.

The power dynamic here puts workers in a terrible situation, as these norms also reinforce the need for workers to show politeness, friendliness and deference to customers. When you combine these norms with the potential financial impact of receiving complaints (such as losing shifts) ,it creates an environment that is extremely discouraging for workers to confront customers or report it.

When managers explicitly reinforce these norms for staff to keep customers happy, or if they fail to act on an employee report, it once again confines and embeds the mindset that they cannot speak up about the sexual harassment that is taking place. According to the report: “This dynamic robs employees of dignity and agency and creates an ecosystem where sexual harassment can flourish.”

The report offered ideas for joint stakeholder action that could combat this widespread issue:

  • Employers, the employer association, the major union and appropriate government agencies should collaborate to run an industry-wide campaign educating customers about inappropriate behaviours. Several participants pointed to the “no one deserves a serve” campaign as a successful model.
  • Providing clear training and organisational communications to frontline workers and managers challenging the notion that the customer is “always right” and empowering retail workers to confront inappropriate customer behaviours
  • Enhancing worker safety through measures like CCTV cameras, duress alarms, code words for discreet help requests, and ensuring sufficient staffing levels and security personnel, especially during high-risk periods such as store closing.



An employee is a person who has signed a contract with a company to provide services in exchange for pay or benefits. Employees vary from other employees like contractors in that their employer has the legal authority to set their working conditions, hours, and working practises.


Harassment is defined as persistent behaviour or acts that intimidate, threaten, or uncomfortably affect other employees at work. Because of anti-discrimination laws and the Fair Work Act of 2009, harassment in Australia is prohibited on the basis of protected characteristics.

Sexual harassment

Sexual harassment is characterised as persistent, frequent, and unwanted sexual approaches or behaviour of a sexual nature at work. Sexually harassing another person in a setting that involves education, employment, or the provision of goods or services is prohibited under the law.

Kace O'Neill

Kace O'Neill

Kace O'Neill is a Graduate Journalist for HR Leader. Kace studied Media Communications and Maori studies at the University of Otago, he has a passion for sports and storytelling.