What is sexual harassment

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.

Sexual harassment

Sexual harassment may contain 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 worker 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.
  • subjects, either directly or indirectly, the worker to sexual innuendo behaviours that they don’t want or find offensive.

These types of behaviour can be in the form of:

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

They are, particularly if repeated, so serious that they can have harmful effects on the worker’s job performance, satisfaction, or even desire to come to work.

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 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, due to the serious nature or repetition of the behaviour, that behaviour is unwelcome or offensive, and that has a harmful effect on you and your job:

  • Sharing sexually inappropriate images or videos, such as pornography or lustful 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.

These are just a few examples of sexual harassment. 

Bottom line: Any actions or words with a sexual connotation that interfere with or affect a worker’s ability to work. In particular, if those actions or words are repeated, or create an uncomfortable atmosphere, they are likely to be considered sexual harassment. An employer must address these behaviours and make sure that their workplace is free of behaviours that are unwelcome or offensive.

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Page last revised: 20 July 2021

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