You know that sexual harassment is a problem when our watchdog, the Human Rights Commission, deals with a groping complaint against its own employee.

Perhaps it's no surprise that the commission chose to retain the staff member.

Sexual harassment is seldom taken as seriously as other forms of gross misconduct.

While the commission investigated and gave the staff member a written warning, many New Zealand workplaces have turned a blind eye to sexual harassment.


Law firm Russell McVeigh has recently faced criticism for the way it handled complaints of sexual assault and harassment, and its failure to report these complaints to the New Zealand Law Society.

Why are so many cases of sexual harassment swept under the rug?

You could blame a lack of policy for a systemic failure to deal with sexual harassment.

Staff members may not understand how to make a complaint, unless this is set out in policy.

However, many organisations recently in the spotlight for sexual harassment had policies in place.

Perhaps the greater problem is an organisation's failure to comply with policy, coupled with a failure to meet employer obligations. Employers are required to provide employees with a safe place of work, including protecting staff from bullying and harassment.

Employers should follow up sexual harassment complaints in a timely manner. It should not matter whether the harasser is a graduate or a law firm partner: the same disciplinary consequences should apply to all staff.

To reduce the risk of sexual harassment, organisations should address the underlying causes.

Find out what lurks underneath your organisation: poor leadership, plus a culture of power play and victim blaming can perpetuate the problem.

Sexual harassment can include unwelcome touching, sexual jokes, or provocative posters. Photo / 123RF
Sexual harassment can include unwelcome touching, sexual jokes, or provocative posters. Photo / 123RF

How can you prevent and address sexual harassment at work?

Develop policies

Do you have a policy on sexual harassment and respectful culture in your workplace?

Define sexual harassment in your policy, so everyone is aware of what it is, and what it is not.

Sexual harassment is any unwelcome or offensive sexual behaviour that is repeated or significant enough to have a harmful effect.

This could include unwelcome touching, sexual jokes, or provocative posters.

Clarify that everyone should be treated with respect, and that harassment of any kind will not be tolerated.

Set out the complaints process and potential disciplinary consequences in your policy.

Positive culture

Is it part of your team culture to joke about your colleagues' sexuality? Do your staff attend strip clubs for social outings? If this sounds like a good day at the office, you may have a culture of sexual harassment.

Some industries have higher incidences of harassment. If there is an established hierarchy, sexual harassment may be more prevalent due to the greater power gap between the harasser and the person being harassed.

Women are more likely to be harassed when they work in a field that is typically male-dominated, such as construction or banking.

Consider whether your workplace culture makes people feel uncomfortable about their gender or sexual orientation.

While it is difficult to change underlying beliefs, you can modify key behaviours if you tell staff what is not acceptable, and follow up complaints with consequences.


Do managers harass staff members as a "trade off" to keep their job or to gain a promotion? Do you investigate complaints about senior staff?

Discuss how you deal with sexual harassment at a board level. If leaders change their behaviours, this can improve workplace culture. Make sure your HR team investigate all complaints, including against leaders, with appropriate disciplinary consequences.

Complaints Process

Do staff members know how to complain about sexual harassment? Is there a culture to speak up for those being harassed?

Many employees will never raise complaints for fear of retribution to their career.

Make sure the complainant is never perceived as the problem.

Tell all staff to speak up about sexual harassment, so that everyone is a watchdog.

If there is a complaint, companies should investigate and discipline the staff member involved in a timely manner.

Consider hiring a third party investigator for independent and impartial investigations.

For further information, register for the KiwiBoss course "Create Positive Culture and Manage Conflict" through HRINZ. Contact Julia Shallcrass to arrange in-house training: