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Steps for workers to deal with sexual harassment

Guidance for workers who think they have been sexually harassed.

Before taking action about sexual harassment, you should clarify whether the behaviour meets the criteria in the law as to what is considered ‘sexual harassment’.

What is sexual harassment

Dealing with the harassment at the workplace level

The first step may be to deal with it yourself at a low level in the workplace.  You should check if there are any existing policies and guidance in your workplace for dealing with sexual harassment and follow these.

Dealing with the harassment yourself

You may want to let the person you think is sexually 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 address the issue in person, you could bring a support person with you, like a trusted friend or colleague. This action should leave the individual with no doubt that their actions or comments are offensive to you or others and unwelcome.

The resolution could be that after some discussion, the person whose behaviour you think was offensive or unwelcome apologise and agree not to behave that way again. You should confirm the agreed outcomes in writing.

You may feel intimidated or become concerned that your job will be in jeopardy if you say something to a person who is senior to you. So you should only deal with the sexual harassment yourself if you feel safe and comfortable doing so.

In this case, you can also choose to use an external organisation without going through the steps at the workplace.

Steps to deal with harassment using an external organisation 

Reporting sexual harassment

If you are not comfortable dealing with the sexual harassment yourself, you should report such behaviour to your manager. If your manager is the harasser, you should report to Human Resources or another manager. They may also give the name of another person to contact, especially in companies that don’t have established Human Resources departments. 

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

Formal email or letter

  • The subject line "Formal complaint of sexual harassment." This puts the company on notice that you are making a serious complaint that 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, and how you felt and what the consequences were.
  • Whether the behaviour is ongoing. You may wish to report that you saw porn on your co-worker’s computer, but if it was a one-time offence and you’ve never seen it again. This is a very different complaint from the complaint of sexual harassment, which is behaviour that because of its serious nature or repetition is offensive or unwelcome and has a harmful effect on you and your job.
  • Add 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 raiseor the best project? Include that information. 

For more information refer to the sample letter on The Balance Careers website.

Sample letter: Complain about sexual harassment – The Balance Careers (external link)

You can also use a template from WorkSafe to report sexual harassment.

Reporting form: Sexual harassment – WorkSafe (external link)

What to expect from your employer when you make a complaint

Sexual harassment complaints can be addressed within an organisation through managers or Human Resources, or Health and Safety representatives.

In this situation, the person who investigates your complaint will try to resolve it internally. To do this, they should get the details of what happened from you and the person you have complained about.

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

The person who investigates has to be clear on what actually had happened. Otherwise, a full investigation would need to be carried out to be fair to the person accused of sexual harassment.

You should consider asking the person investigating the complaint:

  • what will be the process for dealing with the complaint
  • for the complaint to be dealt with confidentially
  • for any written copy of the complainant response and any other documents related to it to be given to you
  • for any documents related to any investigation
  • for an independent investigator
  • 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 sexual harassment
  • what action will be taken to address it, and
  • when action has been taken, so that you know that the matter has been dealt with. 

Dealing with the harassment by using an external organisation

If you are worried about the way your organisation is handling your sexual harassment complaint or disagree with their findings or the conduct of the investigator, you may wish to contact an independent lawyer or employment advocate. If you are a union member, you can involve a union representative.

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

You can make a formal complaint using one of these two options – you can’t do both:

  • You can raise a personal grievance under the Employment Relations Act 2000. You must do this within 90 days since the sexual harassment first happened.
    Personal grievance process
  • You can complain directly to the Human Rights Commission under the Human Rights Act 1993. You have twelve months to do this from the incident of sexual harassment. 
    Human Rights Commission (external link)

Depending on what type of worker you are, one option would be more appropriate:

  • If you are an employee, you can choose either option.
  • If you are a volunteer, an independent contractor, a customer or a supplier, you can only raise your complaint to the Human Rights Commission. 

Who is an employee

Mediation

You can also ask for mediation via our free mediations services to help resolve the issues between you and the other party.  The mediation services provide a complaint process that is private and confidential for everyone involved. You will be contacted by their teams to guide you through the process. This may include mediation sessions where, through the help of a mediator, those involved talk about the issues in an open and constructive way to reach a fair and mutually agreed resolution.

Resolution can include an apology, an agreement not to do the same thing in the future, disciplinary action against the offender, a training programme or compensation.

Mediation

Employment Relations Authority or Human Rights Review Tribunal

If a resolution is not reached during mediation, you can go to:

  • Employment Relations Authority, if you are raising a personal grievance under the Employment Relations Act 2000
  • the Human Rights Review Tribunal, if you are making a complaint to the Human Rights Commission.

Please note that normally there’s no confidentiality once a decision of the Human Rights Review Tribunal or Employment Relations Authority is published. You can ask for it, but confidentiality may or may not be granted.

Guidance on sexual harassment and the complaint process – Human Rights Commission [PDF, 235KB] (external link)

Advice for workers in sexual harassment complaints WorkSafe (external link)  

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Page last revised: 20 July 2021

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