Sexual harassment

Key points about sexual harassment

  • Sexual harassment is unwelcome or offensive sexual behaviour.
  • Behaviour doesn’t have to be repeated to be harassment. Serious one-off behaviour can be harassment as well.
  • Sexual harassment can involve spoken or written material, images, digital material or a physical act.
  • Sexual harassment by anyone you come into contact with is unlawful in Aotearoa New Zealand.  
  • You don’t have to put up with unwanted sexual behaviour. Find out how to make a complaint or personal grievance.
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NOTE: The Human Rights Commission has a free, informal and confidential service for questions or complaints about unlawful discrimination or sexual harassment on freephone 0800 496 7877. 

The Human Rights Act 1993 defines sexual harassment as any unwelcome or offensive sexual behaviour that is repeated, or is serious enough to have a harmful effect, or which contains an implied or overt promise of preferential treatment, or an implied or overt threat of detrimental treatment. 

Sexual harassment can be spoken or written, visual or physical acts.  It can occur in person, through text messaging, or online through email, internet chat rooms or other social media channels. 

Sexual harassment is unlawful under the Human Rights Act (1993) and the Employment Relations Act (2000). Sexual assault is covered by the Crimes Act 1981. Read more about sexual assault and consent.

Examples of sexual harassment 

  • Offensive sexual remarks or jokes in your workplace or school. 
  • Implied or actual threats of overlooking you for promotion if you reject your boss’s advances. 
  • Promises or hints you’ll get a promotion or opportunities at work for accepting your boss’s advances. 
  • Unusually low marks or grades after rejecting your teacher's or lecturer’s advances. 
  • Unwelcome touching, patting, kissing or pinching by your boss, co-workers, suppliers, customers or club members. 
  • Unacceptable sexual behaviour by your counsellor, doctor or lawyer, tradesperson, salesperson, landlord or anyone who provides you with goods or services. 
  • Regular hassling for a date or being followed home by a co-worker. 
  • Sexually offensive images in the workplace, including screen savers. 
  • Being excluded from groups, teams, clubs or organisations because you turned down unwanted advances. 
  • Unwanted questions about your sex life. 

Sexual harassment by employers, landlords, shopkeepers, government staff and others who you deal with in public life is unlawful.

You have the right to be treated fairly and with respect, and to be free from unwelcome sexual conduct. If you believe you have been sexually harassed, take these steps: 

  • Keep a record of the incident/s you found offensive.  
  • Talk it over with someone you trust and who will keep the information confidential.  
  • You can also raise it directly with the person or people involved, either face to face or in writing. You can have a friend, family member or other support person present when you talk to the person/people involved.  

If these suggestions don’t work, or you feel uncomfortable doing them, you can get advice from a number of people: 

  • a sexual harassment contact person at work 
  • a manager or school counsellor 
  • your union delegate or a lawyer (the Community Law Centre offers free legal advice) 
  • a professional disciplinary group 
  • a qualified counsellor (you an find one here(external link))
  • the police (for sexual assault) 
  • the Human Rights Commission, which has a free, informal and confidential service for questions or complaints about unlawful discrimination or sexual harassment on freephone 0800 496 7877. 

Professional bodies, such as those of doctors, lawyers, accountants and other groups, have their own rules within which their members must operate. Their disciplinary committees are responsible for following up on any complaints of unsatisfactory behaviour, including sexual harassment.

With new forms of communication such as the internet and mobile phones, sexual harassment may take the form of unwanted material being uploaded to one of these media platforms. Equally, you should never download or upload anything on your device that could result in a complaint against you. You need to be familiar with ways to block incoming mail or calls on your phone. Netsafe(external link) can help with this. 

If the harassment happens outside of work, you can complain directly to the Human Rights Commission on freephone 0800 496 7877 in confidence. 

You can also complain through a lawyer, advocate, union representative or, if you are a child, a parent. 

What to do if you've been harassed at your workplace 

If you’re sexually harassed by a co-worker, customer or client, you may wish initially to confide in a friend, or you can complain directly to your employer. Your employer must then investigate your complaint. If the employer is reasonably satisfied that your complaint is well-founded, they must take all possible steps to stop the harassment happening again. This may include mediation.

If the harassment happens again after you’ve complained, and your employer hasn’t taken steps to prevent it, or it was your employer that sexually harassed you, you can bring a personal grievance against your employer. There are two services you can choose to complain to. You need to choose one not both: 

You don’t have to put up with sexual behaviour you don’t like. Sexual harassment: 

  • is often repeated unless action is taken 
  • may impact on how you feel about work, study or accessing services 
  • can lower self-esteem.

Other people in your situation may have experienced similar behaviour, but felt unable to act. Your action may well prevent further harassment elsewhere. 

If someone has made a personal grievance under the Employment Relations Act (2000) or has complained about your alleged behaviour to the Human Rights Commission, you’ll be sent a letter outlining the nature of the complaint. The letter will explain the complaint process. The process is free, impartial, flexible and confidential to everyone involved.  

Read more about Personal grievances(external link) and  How the Human Rights Commission complaints process works(external link) 

As an employer, you need to make sure all employees know that sexual harassment will not be tolerated. It’s also important to have written policies and procedures in place aimed at preventing sexual harassment.  

If sexual harassment does happen, there must be someone in the organisation the employee can complain to and a procedure for achieving a resolution. Nobody should be subject to any unfair treatment because a sexual harassment complaint has been made.  

A sexual harassment complaint can be made if a particular employee finds something sexually offensive, even if other employees are not offended. Remember that sexual harassment complaints are subjective. What matters is what offends the individual, and that person doesn’t have to tell the offender that the alleged behaviour was unwelcome or offensive, before proceeding with a complaint process   

Read more about Sexual harassment in the workplace(external link)

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Credits: Healthify editorial team. Healthify is brought to you by Health Navigator Charitable Trust.

Reviewed by: Dr Bryan Frost, FRNZCGP, Morrinsville

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