Workplace Harassment: How to protect yourself

We will start by explaining that, workplace harassment, either sexual or otherwise, is a sad fact of life in businesses and institutions across New Zealand. Not everyone experiences it, but for those that do the consequences can be catastrophic.

What is Harassment

Harassment in the workplace is behaviour directed towards an individual, or group of individuals, which has the effect of creating an intimidating, threatening, humiliating or unreasonable workplace environment for the victim.

It can be subtle or overt and includes unwelcome comments and gestures; the display of offensive material; insults to a person’s race, gender, disability or sexual preference; violent or threatening behaviour; intrusive questioning about a person’s personal life; offensive communications (emails, phone calls etc.); exclusion from normal workplace interactions; unwarranted derogatory comments or evaluations of workplace performance.

It is important to remember, however, that harassment does not include valid negative assessments of an employee’s work performance if these are conveyed in an appropriate manner.

Harassing behaviour does not have to be repeated over a long period of time to be considered harassment. In some cases a single instance of unacceptable behaviour qualifies.

Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment is unwanted attention of a sexual nature that has a detrimental effect on the employee’s working life. Often it may involve a promise of preferential treatment, or the threat of detrimental treatment at work. It includes physical contact, the display of pornography, sexual comments and gestures, requests for sexual favours.

Sexual harassment may involve mixed sex or same sex participants. In mixed sex instances of sexual harassment men are not always the perpetrators.

Effects of Harassment

Beyond the effects on the individual victim, harassment can be costly to the employer. A workplace where a culture of harassment is allowed to develop will suffer both in terms of productivity and staff morale. Increases in absenteeism, sickness, errors and injury are likely to be seen. Staff turnover may rise, management time will be diverted to the investigation of harassment complaints and expensive legal fees may be incurred.

An Employer’s Responsibility

By law it is an employer’s responsibility to ensure a safe working environment for employees. Besides acting appropriately themselves in relation to harassment, employers can also be held liable if they do not take steps to address issues of harassment between their employees. It is no defence for an employer to claim that they do not condone harassment.

Employers should have a defined harassment policy in place and should communicate this to all staff. Employees should be aware of the steps they can take if they feel they are being harassed and they should be confident that any complaint they make will be dealt with effectively and in confidence.

What You can Do

If you are a victim of workplace harassment there are a number of options open to you. If you feel safe enough to ask the perpetrator to cease the offending behaviour you may do this. However, victims of harassment may either not feel confident enough to do this, or may feel that they will simply not be able to effect a resolution in this manner.

In such cases, a written complaint should be made either to the victim’s manager, or to the offender’s manager. All correspondence regarding the matter, however brief or seemingly insignificant, should be saved by the complainant. Similarly, all interactions during the course of the complaint (meetings, conversations, relevant phone calls etc.) should be logged and described for future reference.

If the harassment victim belongs to a union, the union representative can be contacted. Unions will generally have harassment policies in place and may be able to provide support and legal assistance.

Many employers also have defined harassment procedures and the victim should make him or herself familiar with these and follow their guidelines.

If the complaint cannot be satisfactorily resolved, the employee and employer may choose to participate in a mediation process overseen by a third party experienced in employment relations problems.

Beyond the options outlined above, the employee may take a personal grievance case against the employer if, after becoming aware of the complaint, the employer does nothing about it or does not sufficiently protect against a recurrence of the behaviour.

Further, complaints of a certain nature (generally sexual or racial) may be laid with the Human Rights Commission. The Human Rights Commission may also provide dispute resolution services, including mediation.

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