Sexual harassment still rife in the workplace

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Nearly two thirds of women have had a male colleague behave "inappropriately" towards them, according to research by UK law firm Slater and Gordon.

The study of more than 1,000 women found female workers are still being subjected to sexist attitudes at work with inappropriate, degrading and embarrassing comments being made about their physical appearance, sex life and the clothes they wear.

One in six women responded they had been forced to fend off a colleague who tried to kiss them and 12% had a colleague touch them inappropriately.

When it came to inappropriate comments and touching, more than half the offenders were senior members of staff, and two thirds of women said the inappropriate behaviour came from married men.

And despite saying the behaviour of their colleagues was often degrading and embarrassing, only 27% reported the behaviour to someone senior.

Slater and Gordon employment lawyer Claire Dawson said while the firm deals with some “shocking cases” of sexual harassment in the workplace, it’s always surprising to hear how widespread the issue is and how many women don’t feel like they can report the behaviour.

“We are well in to the 21st century now and the message doesn't seem to have got through to everyone that this just isn't acceptable,” she said in a statement. “Women have a right to go to work without having to fend off unwanted advances or inappropriate behaviour from members of the opposite sex."

The most common places for women to experienced inappropriate behaviour were at their desk while they were working late, at an office party or in a staff corridor or lift.

The research showed that after an incident of inappropriate behaviour women often found themselves ignored by the member of staff or bad-mouthed. And of the 24% of women that had a senior member of staff make a move on them, five per cent then lost their job while more than one in 10 said they had been turned down for a promotion.

"We see clients who have been blamed for bringing the treatment on themselves because of what they wear or how they are perceived by others, and clients who have been bullied, denied promotion or even physically assaulted when they refuse a colleague's advances or make it clear that the harassment is not welcome," Dawson said “It’s important for women to be aware of what their rights are. They shouldn’t feel like this behaviour is acceptable and that it is something that comes with the job.”

While the research is based on findings from the UK, Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner Dr Jackie Blue said there was no reason to think NZ results would show a different picture.

The New Zealand Human Rights Commission has received 151 sexual harassment complaints over the last three years – 87% of those have been made by women.

Statistics, however, are incomplete as the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) does not keep records on the issue.

“We don’t have the whole picture,” Blue said. “A lot of it goes underreported anyway so we are only seeing the tip of the iceberg.”

Complainants can go via the MBIE mediation services and if unresolved can go to the Employment Relations Authority or the Human Rights Commission.

“[But] complainants can’t do both,” Blue warned. “They can’t switch midway through, and if one fails try the other one.”

There are also subtleties between the two pieces of legislation that protect employees from sexual harassment that those with an issue should be aware of Blue added.

“To prove sexual harassment under the Employment Relations Act 2000 (which the Employment Relations Authority  would use) you have to show the employer or a representative of the employer was aware of it. Importantly, an employee can’t bring a complaint against a co-worker under this Act,” she said.

“Under the Human Rights Act 1993 (which the Human Rights Commission uses) it is not necessary to show that the employer knew of the acts that constituted sexual harassment by a co-worker. The onus is on the employer to show it took practicable steps to prevent sexual harassment taking place. However, an employee can bring a complaint against a co-worker under this Act.”

Information on how to deal with sexual harassment in the workplace in NZ is available from the Human Rights Commission and the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.

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