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A Timely Reminder of Workplace Standards

Written by Tayla Westman 

Although a mouthful, The Employment Relations (Extended Time for Personal Grievance for Sexual Harassment) Amendment Bill, is bringing about important extensions to the law governing workplace harassment. The Bill extends the time during which an employee may bring a personal grievance for sexual harassment from 90 days to 12 months. This is an important amendment given the sensitivity involved and is a reminder for all of us about the importance of actively maintaining a healthy safe work environment. A workplace where employees know their rights and the responsibilities of their employers.

But what is meant when we talk about “harassment in the workplace”? Although the Amendment tackles sexual harassment, harassment in the workplace is a broad-sweeping matter which manifests in two main categories under the Employment Relations Act or the ERA – namely racial and sexual harassment. The Ministry of Business, Innovation & Employment advocates that “harassment of any kind should not be tolerated in the workplace”. As an employee, you are protected against harassment by strict expectations of conduct. As an employer, it’s your duty to undergo a proper investigation should an employee raise a complaint.

Sexual harassment in the workplace can be as blatant as a direct request for sexual activity but can also be indirect.  Either way it must involve a promise of preferential or threat of detrimental treatment. Fortunately, promises or threats of these kinds are recognised to occur both overtly and impliedly, depending on the circumstances. What that means is that employees can bring forward a complaint even in instances which do not give rise to unmistakable promises or threats. Sexual harassment claims may also be triggered by a direct or indirect request through:

  • The use of language, both written or spoken; or
  • Visual materials that are sexual in nature; or
  • Physical behaviour.

Racial harassment is defined as the use of written or spoken language, visual material or physical behaviour that directly or indirectly:

  • Expresses hostility or ridicules the employee on the ground of race; and
  • Is hurtful or offensive to that employee; and
  • Has a detrimental effect on the employee’s quality of employment.

If an employee brings a complaint of harassment of either kind, it is the responsibility of the employer to conduct a thorough investigation. If not taken seriously, an employer may be liable should the employee not be protected from harassment in the future. Proper procedure is safeguarded by both the ERA and Human Rights Act, with the goal to ensure harassing behaviour is never repeated.

Above all, this Amendment Bill, reminds us of the importance of exercising compassion and respect in our workplaces, and making sure every measure is taken to protect staff.

If you have questions or concerns about harassment in the workplace, reach out to your HR team, your manager, or a senior colleague.   If you feel more comfortable doing so with the support of a friend or family member, then take a support person with you.