What is sexual harassment

Sexual harassment is a serious issue that employers must investigate and act on. Employers must provide employment that's free from sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment

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

The person doing the harassment could be the employer (such as a manager), or the employer’s representative, co-worker, a volunteer or even a non-employee like a client, contractor, or supplier. This happens when this person either:

  • subtly or obviously asks 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 about current or future job security; or
  • subjects, either directly or indirectly, the employee to behaviours of a sexual nature they don’t want or find offensive that negatively impacts the employee’s employment, performance, or job satisfaction.

The types of behaviour can be in the form of:

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

These behaviours of a sexual nature could affect the employee’s job performance, satisfaction, or even desire to come to work.

Any actions or words with a sexual connotation that interfere with or affect an employee’s ability to work are considered sexual harassment. In particular, if those actions or words are repeated, or create an uncomfortable atmosphere. 

Sexual harassment is the employer’s responsibility

Sexual harassment is a workplace risk. As with all workplace risks, addressing sexual harassment is the employer's responsibility 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. 

If an employer receives a complaint about sexual harassment by an employee, customer or client, the employer must investigate what happened. If confirmed the behaviour did take place, employers must take all practicable steps to avoid it happening again.

Examples of sexual harassment behaviour

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 said may be affected, even if the comments aren't directed toward them. 

Here are some examples of behaviours that may be considered sexual harassment in the workplace:

  • Sharing sexually inappropriate images or videos, such as pornography or sexual gifs, with co-workers.
  • Sending suggestive letters, notes, messages, or emails.
  • Displaying inappropriate sexual images, such as 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, such as 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.

For guidance for employees who think they’ve been sexually harassed visit:

Steps for worker to address sexual harassment

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Page last revised: 13 June 2023

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