Harassment at work

Sexual, racial and other forms of harassment are serious issues that employers must properly investigate and act on.

Behaviour in the workplace that amounts to harassment of any kind may be considered misconduct and should be investigated by the employer, even if the employee affected does not want to raise a personal grievance or make a complaint to the Human Rights Commission Te Kāhui Tika Tangata.

Employer responsibilities

Harassment is a workplace risk and, as such, is the employer's responsibility to deal with it under the:

  • Health and Safety at Work Act 2015
  • Employment Relations Act 2000
  • Employment Relations (Extended Time for Personal Grievance for Sexual Harassment) Amendment Act 2023, and
  • Human Rights Act 1993.

Harassment in the workplace could be sexual, racial, or some other form of behaviour that affects an individual’s mental wellbeing and ability to do their job in a safe, supportive working environment. 

Employers must provide employment that is free from harassment.

If an employer receives a complaint about alleged harassment, they must properly investigate what has happened. If it is confirmed that harassment did take place, the employer must take all practicable steps to prevent it from happening again.

What is sexual harassment?

The Employment Relations Act 2000 defines sexual harassment as direct or indirect requests for sexual activity.

The person doing the harassing could be the employer (such as a manager), or an employer’s representative, co-worker, a volunteer, or even a non-employee like a client, contractor, or supplier. 

In typical cases, the person might:

  • subtly or obviously ask the employee for sex, sexual contact, or other sexual activity, with a:
    • promise of better treatment in their employment, or
    • threat of either worse treatment, or their current or future job security; or
  • subject, either directly or indirectly, the employee to behaviour of a sexual nature they do not want or find offensive, and that negatively impacts the employee’s employment, performance or job satisfaction. 

Sexual harassment could be in the form of:

  • written or spoken language
  • visual material such as pictures, diagrams, photos and videos, or
  • physical behaviour.  

Behaviour of this sort can affect the employee’s job performance, job satisfaction, or even desire to come to work. 

Any actions or words of a sexual nature that interfere with or affect an employee’s ability to work are considered sexual harassment — particularly if those actions or words are repeated or create an uncomfortable atmosphere.

Victims of the harassment are not just the target of the behaviour, but anyone affected by it. For example, a co-worker standing nearby when inappropriate sexual comments are made may be affected even if the comments are not directed toward them.  

Here are some examples of behaviours that could be considered sexual harassment in the workplace.

  • Sharing sexually inappropriate images or videos, like pornography or sexual gifs, with co-workers.
  • Sending suggestive letters, notes, messages or emails.
  • Displaying inappropriate sexual images, for example, on posters or calendars in the workplace.
  • Telling vulgar jokes or sexual anecdotes.
  • Making inappropriate hand or body sexual gestures.
  • Staring in a sexually suggestive or offensive manner, or whistling.
  • Making sexual comments about appearance, clothing or body parts.
  • Inappropriate touching, including pinching, patting, rubbing or purposefully brushing up against another person.
  • Asking sexual questions, for example, queries about someone’s sexual history or their sexual orientation.
  • Making offensive comments about someone's sexual orientation or gender identity.
  • Unwanted comments or teasing about a person's sexual activities.
  • Persistent and unwelcome social invitations, or telephone calls or emails, from workmates at work or at home.

What is racial harassment?

An employee is racially harassed if the employer, or a representative of the employer, uses language (written or spoken) or visual material, or physical behaviour that directly or indirectly:

  • expresses hostility towards the employee, or brings the employee into contempt or ridicule, because of their race, colour, or ethnic or national origins, and
  • is hurtful or offensive to the employee (even if they do not let the employer or the employer’s representative know this), and
  • is so significant or repeated that it has a negative effect on their employment, job performance or job satisfaction.

There does not need to be intent for the actions to be considered racial harassment. It depends on the impact the behaviour has on the affected person.

  • Making offensive remarks about a person's race.
  • Copying or making fun of the way a person speaks.
  • Making jokes about a person's race.
  • Calling people racist names.
  • Deliberately mispronouncing or mocking people's names.

Other forms of harassment

General harassment includes any unwanted and unjustified behaviour that another person finds offensive or humiliating, which is serious or repeated, and has a negative effect on the person’s employment, job performance or job satisfaction.

Specific protection from other forms of harassment at work is not covered by legislation, but if an employee is subjected to another form of harassment, they may be able to bring a personal grievance, for example, if:

  • other forms of harassment are included in workplace policies or , or
  • the harassment leads to unjustified disadvantage or constructive dismissal.

Personal grievances

  • Comments or behaviour that express hostility, contempt or ridicule.
  • Repeated put-downs for people of a particular age, body shape or gender identity.
  • A general work atmosphere of repeated jokes, teasing, or ‘fun’ at someone else’s expense because of a particular characteristic they have.

Other forms of harassment may be considered bullying if they are repeated.

If you think you have been harassed

If you believe you have been harassed at work, there are a number of options available to you to resolve the issue.

Is it sexual, racial or other harassment?

Before you take any action, you should consider whether the behaviour meets the legal descriptions of ‘harassment’. Sexual and racial harassment are defined by law, but harassment can also be general in nature with no strict definition.

Specific protection from other forms of harassment at work is not included in legislation, but if you are subjected to another form of harassment you may be able to bring a personal grievance, for example, if:

  • other forms of harassment are included in workplace policies or employment agreements
  • the harassment leads to unjustified disadvantage or constructive dismissal. 

Addressing the harassment yourself

The first step may be for you to address the harassment yourself. You should check if there are any policies and guidance in your workplace for addressing harassment and follow these.

You might feel intimidated or concerned that your job could be in jeopardy if you say something. Only take steps to address the harassment yourself if you feel safe and comfortable doing so.

You may want to let the person you think is harassing you know how their behaviour makes you feel or may be making others feel. You can directly ask them to stop their behaviour either face-to-face or in writing.

If you take steps to address the harassment yourself, you should still report it, for example, to your manager or whoever is responsible so that they can support you and ensure the workplace culture does not accept this behaviour. It is important they know it has happened, even if you are able to resolve the matter yourself.

If you feel safe addressing the issue in person, you can bring a support person with you like a trusted friend or colleague. You should communicate clearly that their actions or comments are offensive to you, or others, and are unwelcome.

The outcome could be that, after some discussion, the person whose behaviour you think was offensive apologises and agrees not to behave that way again. You should confirm the agreed outcomes in writing and let your manager know.

If you do not feel safe and comfortable addressing the harassment yourself, you can choose to report it to your employer or seek external advice.

Reporting harassment

You can report harassment to your employer. This might be to your own manager, to human resources or another manager. They may give you the name of another person to contact, especially if there is no established human resources department. 

If you are unable to report the harassment because there is not a human resources department or your manager is involved, you can contact us and we can provide impartial, free and confidential early resolution or mediation services.

Early resolution


It’s okay to report harassment in person, but you should follow up with a formal email or letter containing the following information.

  • The subject line ‘Formal complaint of alleged harassment’ — this puts the employer on notice that you are making a serious complaint which requires action.
  • A timeline with as many names, dates and actions documented as possible. Any witnesses you can list are helpful.
  • Details of what happened, who said what, when, how you felt, and what the consequences were.
  • Whether the behaviour is ongoing, or you are concerned it might be repeated.
  • Any concerns that you have about your situation — are you concerned that because you turned down a date request your manager will overlook you for a pay raise or the best project? 

You can also use these templates from WorkSafe to report bullying and harassment.

Bullying: Reporting and assessment forms – WorkSafe (external link)

Reporting form: Sexual harassment – WorkSafe(external link)

Making a complaint

Complaints of harassment can be made within an organisation through managers, or human resources or health and safety representatives.

The person who investigates your complaint will try to resolve it internally. To do this, they will need details from you about what happened and the person you have complained about.

In some cases, they may be able to resolve the problem by telling the person that their behaviour was inappropriate, asking them not to do it again, and making sure the behaviour has stopped.

The person who investigates must be clear about what actually happened. Otherwise, a full investigation will need to be carried out to be fair to the person accused of harassment.

You should consider asking the person investigating the complaint:

  • what the process will be for dealing with the complaint
  • that the complaint be handled confidentially
  • for any written copy of the complainant response, and any other documents relating to it, to be given to you
  • that an independent investigator be used
  • for the expected timeframe for resolving issues
  • that a support person be present for any interview.

After the investigation, the investigator should tell you:

  • whether the behaviour you reported was considered harassment
  • what action will be taken to address it and when action has been taken, so that you know that the matter is being, or has been, addressed. 

Seeking external help

If your complaint cannot be resolved, or you are unhappy with the way a complaint is being handled or with a decision that has been made, you may wish to get external advice.

A lawyer, employment advocate, union representative, the Citizen Advice Bureau (CAB) or Community Law Centres (CLC) can help you make a formal complaint. 

If you are not sure which option to take, the services listed below can provide more information.

Employment New Zealand 

If you are not happy with your employer’s response, you can raise a personal grievance through Employment New Zealand’s free, impartial and confidential mediation services to try and resolve the issue.

Our phone-based Early Resolution service helps to resolve workplace issues quickly and informally before they become too serious and require a more formal process.

Early Resolution

Our mediation service helps both parties work voluntarily with an independent mediator to reach a solution.


Employees can raise a personal grievance in some circumstances. A personal grievance must be raised within certain timeframes.

Personal grievances

If a resolution is not reached during mediation, you can contact the following services.

Employment Relations Authority (ERA)

You can also raise a personal grievance claim with the ERA.

Employees have 90 days from when they identified the harassment to raise a personal grievance claim under the Employment Relations Act.

Who can apply to the Authority – Employment Relations Authority  (external link)

If you are not happy with an ERA decision, you can challenge it in the Employment Court.

File a challenge – Employment Court of New Zealand(external link)

The Human Rights Commission Te Kāhui Tika Tangata

You can raise a complaint under the Human Rights Act 1993. You have 12 months following the harassment to do this. 

If you are a volunteer, an independent contractor, a customer or a supplier, you can only raise your complaint to the Human Rights Commission Te Kāhui Tika Tangata.

Te Kāhui Tika Tangata Human Rights Commission (external link)

You can also access external advice from other organisations including:

Sexual harassment - Advice for workers – WorkSafe(external link)

How to report a crime or incident – New Zealand Police(external link)

If you are accused of harassment

If you are accused of harassment, it is important that you take it seriously, and know your options and responsibilities.

How to respond to an accusation

If a complaint of harassment has been made against you, it is important that you take this seriously and review your behaviour. You should reflect on what has been said or done, how often this has occurred and how the person making the complaint might be feeling — or what they, or others affected by the behaviour, might be thinking.

Remember that even if what you did was unintentional, you could still be held responsible because harassment is viewed from the perspective of the person who has been affected, and the employer needs to take steps to address the behaviour.

If someone has contacted you to address the issue informally, you should acknowledge how they feel and agree on certain outcomes with them in writing, for example, an agreement not to behave the same way again. If your company has policies and procedures on harassment in place, you should read them and follow their guidance. If you agree to stop the behaviour but then repeat it, you will likely be subject to disciplinary action by your employer.

If your behaviour was unintentional and not a repeat occurrence, you could write to the applicant, explain your behaviour, apologise, and agree not to do it again. This may clear up any misunderstanding. The complainant may accept your apology.

You need to check if there will be an investigation and how any apology or agreement will be treated within that investigation. You can seek advice from an employment advocate or lawyer at any point before acknowledging or responding to a complaint, whether it is informal or formal.

If the above is not possible, let your manager know immediately. 

Formal investigation

If your employer starts a formal investigation, you should ask:

  • that the complaint be dealt with confidentially

Employee privacy

  • for a written copy of the complaint and any other documents related to it, including documents related to any investigation already made
  • what the process will be for dealing with the complaint
  • what the consequences will be for your employment
  • that an independent investigator be used
  • for the terms of reference of any complaint
  • what the expected timeframe for resolving any issues will be
  • whether a complaint has been raised with the Employment Relations Authority or the Human Rights Commission Te Kāhui Tika Tangata (the complainant must choose 1 or the other).

You or your manager should also consider temporary measures, including:

  • being reassigned to other duties or relocated to another part of the business until the investigation is complete
  • taking voluntary leave of absence until any investigation is complete.

If you need to talk in confidence with someone, you can also contact:

  • a representative from human resources or health and safety
  • a manager at work
  • your union representative, an employment advocate or a lawyer.

Free legal help – Community Law(external link)

Contact Us

What employers can do to address harassment

As an employer, you should have policies and procedures in place to prevent and deal with harassment in the workplace whether it comes to your attention following a complaint or otherwise. 

Along with your own behaviour, you are also responsible for addressing the behaviour of all employees, customers and clients.

If the harassment involves assault or violence, this should be reported to the Police.

How to report a crime or incident – New Zealand Police(external link)

Having a written policy

You should have a written policy statement advising employees that harassment is unlawful and will not be tolerated. The policy should give examples of what is considered harassment and should say what action will be taken against anyone whose behaviour is inappropriate.
Policy statements should set out an employee’s rights to complain about sexual harassment under both the Human Rights Act 1993 and the Employment Relations Act 2000, along with procedures to follow if a complaint is made.

Creating workplace policies and procedures

WorkSafe has example policies and guides, too:

Anti-bullying policy template – WorkSafe(external link)

Sexual harassment - Example policy – WorkSafe(external link)

Reviewing policies and procedures

You should check how well your harassment policies and procedures are working in your workplace.

  • Every year your human resources team could carry out an anonymous survey asking employees about harassment in the workplace.
  • When employees leave, the team could carry out ‘exit interviews’ and ask specific questions about workplace harassment. The results should then be used to review and improve your policies and procedures.

Having a process for investigating complaints

An employer should follow a fair and proper process when looking into any misconduct. Having a proper process for investigating a harassment complaint is very important. How you deal with, or fail to handle, an investigation may be critical to resolving the complaint.

Fair process


You can seek help from an outside organisation or an independent workplace investigator if the matter is serious.

Labour inspectorate complaints

If you receive a complaint of harassment, you must:

  • set timelines and deal with the issue as soon as you can
  • carefully and clearly consider response options for the specific circumstance
  • treat the complaint confidentially
  • clearly communicate the process by:
    • telling both parties involved what the process is
    • letting the people involved know if there are any delays in the process
    • protecting the people involved — including both sides of the complaint
    • supporting people and witnesses from victimisation, for example, being punished, bullied or intimidated
    • ensuring that both parties get the necessary information from each other. 

You must tell all those involved about what support and representation is available to them. You must also maintain confidentiality and make sure details of the matter are only known to those directly concerned, including their representative or support person, and those involved in investigating and considering the reported behaviour.

Employee privacy

Complaints can be resolved within your organisation. For example, if the behaviour was unintentional, this could be resolved by the parties themselves having a meeting to clear up any miscommunications and the person complained about agreeing not to repeat the behaviour. 

If the person is making a complaint about their own manager, you can get them to temporarily report to another manager while you carry out the investigation. You can also let the employee know they can take paid leave if necessary, or you could consider offering them paid special leave.

Leave and holidays

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