What is sexual harassment

The Employment Relations Act 2000 defines sexual harassment as direct or indirect requests for sexual activity that suggests preferential or harmful treatment in the workplace.

Sexual harassment

Sexual harassment subjects the employee to behaviour that is unwelcome or offensive, or contains an implied or overt promise of preferential treatment, or an implied or overt threat of detrimental treatment.

The person doing the harassment could be a manager, 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 sexual innuendo behaviours they don’t want or find offensive that negatively impacts the employee’s employment, performance, or job satisfaction.

The sexual innuendo 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 sexual behaviours could affect the employee’s job performance, satisfaction, or even desire to come to work.

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, 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.

If the sexual harassment involves assault, threats of harm or violence, this should be reported to the Police.

Reporting sexual assault – Police (external link)

Examples of sexual harassment behaviour

Victims of the harassment may not be 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, or emails.
  • Displaying inappropriate sexual images, 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. 

Guidance for employees who think they’ve been sexually harassed:

Steps for worker to address sexual harassment

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Page last revised: 18 April 2023

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