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Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Published November 22, 2016 (last updated May 31, 2022) - NZ Operations Manager

Sexual harassment – a potentially uncomfortable term but one that requires specific attention throughout New Zealand workplaces.

The Human Rights Commission reportedly receives 70 workplace sexual harassment complaints every year, mostly from women aged between 18 and 30. While this figure is staggering, the concern lies with the potentially hundreds more that are never reported, dealt with inadequately in the workplace or completely ignored, subjective evidence suggests.

While these figures show a majority of reports were made by women, we cannot forget that men can fall victim to sexual harassment in the workplace too – no one is immune.

Sexual Harassment is undeniably illegal in New Zealand with the Employment Relations Act 2000 (ERA) protecting employees against this exploitation and the Human Rights Act 1993 (HRA) delving further to protect contractors, volunteers and clients/customers/patients against such advances.

What constitutes sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment can be described as any unwelcome advances of a sexual nature, request for sexual favours and any other verbal or physical conduct with sexual connotations leading to a hostile, offensive and uncomfortable working environment. This can include:

  • sexual advances with the suggestion of beneficial treatment whilst at work or a promotion
  • sexual jokes
  • comments or references to someone’s sexual activity
  • inappropriate or explicit imagery
  • unwarranted touching, kissing or grabbing
  • indecent exposure
  • sexually overt text messages, emails, phone calls or messaging across social media channels

Prevention is better than management

If you do not already have a sexual harassment policy in place, you need to create one as soon as possible. By defining and implementing this policy, you are giving all employees a clear indication of what is not tolerated within your workplace. This policy should also outline the process for lodging complaints, the investigation procedure taken to determine an outcome of a complaint and any disciplinary action that will be taken should the harassment be justified.

Employees should be introduced to this policy from the very beginning of their employment. Including it, and making reference to it in inductions is a prime way to bring attention to its importance.

If you are introducing the policy to current employees, ensure everyone is made aware of it at one time (ie at a full staff meeting) or in a similar nature, and that it is presented by a person of authority.  Ensure each employee receives a copy and place copies in easily accessible places such as notice boards or the intranet.

Managing complaints in line with employment obligations

If you receive a complaint relating to sexual harassment, you must ensure you take it seriously and follow a fair process, adhering to your requirements outlined by employment law. Doing so can alleviate the concern of a personal grievance claim being made. Steps to follow include:

  • take immediate action
  • ensure all details of the complaint are documented
  • perform a thorough investigation and gain evidence to support the complaint
  • make sure both parties are aware of their entitlement to a support person for all meetings associated with the complaint
  • be transparent when discussing the investigation, its progress and the status when liaising with both the complainant and the accused
  • ensure the matter is dealt with quickly and thoroughly

Sexual harassment is a very serious issue and therefore needs to be managed delicately. As the leading workplace relations specialist, Employsure can guide you through any presenting issues while working with you to construction specific workplace policies to help minimise incidents. Call us today on 0800 568 012.

About Employsure

Employsure is one of New Zealand’s largest workplace relations advisers to small and medium businesses, with over 5,500 clients. We take the complexity out of workplace legislation to help small business employers protect their business and their people.

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