Work place harassment: the smoking gun paradigm

post by ‘Ellie Clearwater’

Semira Davis, an employee at New Zealand’s ASB bank, laid a formal complaint against her boss for harassment. Her allegations included unwelcome physical contact and the fact that he was ‘sketching’ her at work – the response? HR replied that he had a ‘knack for it’ (Anthony, 2018).

This, frankly shocking, response sums up the New Zealand attitude towards as very real social issue: Workplace harassment.

Now chances are, most people reading this blog will have at some stage experienced harassment in the workplace – but what actually is it? The Human Rights Commission has produced an information booklet titled Sexual Harassment: What you need to know. This resource defines harassment as ‘any unwelcome or offensive sexual behaviour that is repeated, or is serious enough to have a harmful effect, or which contains an implied or overt promise of preferential treatment or an implied or overt threat of detrimental treatment. Employment New Zealand even provided examples, including but not limited to: offensive comments, physical contact such as ‘patting, pinching or touching’, being overlooked for promotions should you decline your boss’s advances, sexual jokes and sexual assault and rape. They also clearly state that any behaviour that amounts to harassment of any kind may be misconduct.

Ideally, this is where I would produce the overwhelming statistical evidence of workplace harassment, but the truth is: I can’t. This is due to the very nature of the culture surrounding sexual harassment and misconduct. A Stuff article, written by Long (2018), indicated that 9 out of 10 sexual offences are not reported to police, but why is this? With the rise of the #MeToo movement – a movement that gained widespread attention when allegations against Harvey Weinstein for multiple acts of sexual assault and harassment became worldwide news – it may have been assumed that the silencing of victims of harassment was a thing of the past, but this isn’t entirely accurate. In fact, according to The Cut article, many workers still feel uncomfortable with the idea of reporting harassment – whether it be their own or something they have observed. This seems to come down to a fear of the consequence of speaking out – with participants of a study admitting they feared inaction or retaliation and that they didn’t know how to lay allegations in a way that wouldn’t harm themselves or their careers. As well as this, many victims fear that they may not be believed, and that unless there is a ‘smoking gun’ as evidence, their claims will be dismissed. Despite the ambiguity surrounding exact numbers, the Human Rights Commission reports that reports of sexual harassment have been ‘steady’ – with roughly 60 complaints per year (Long, 2018).

So, with the issue being so prevalent, what can you do should you find yourself in this situation?

Sexual Harassment: What you need to know offers further guidance in this area.(Human Rights Commission). Firstly, it promotes the importance of speaking to someone – whether this be a professional counsellor or a trusted acquaintance, this in itself may help you feel more comfortable. Likewise, you may wish to speak to the co-worker or manager involved in a form of direct mediation, with the aid of a support person. It then adds a suggested list of contacts that may offer advice, such as: a union delegate, a manager, a professional disciplinary group, the Human Rights Commission and even the Police.

This resource guides you step by step through the complaints process- which, it is important to note, is private and confidential for everyone involved. This process will take you through a mediation process, and often does not progress further – however, should it be necessary, legal action will be supported.

Finally, this resource is very clear on the role of the employer in sexual harassment situations and the zero-tolerance stance they must take. The resource specifically states that no person should be treated unfairly as a result of a complaint, as they are protected under the Human Rights Act 1993. However, I believe that, despite legislation under the Human Rights Act 1993 preventing work place discrimination, much more work must be done to ensure an environment for victims to safe opening up about harassment, smoking gun or not.

On this subject I will finish with a final thought: As social workers, we would not advocate couples counselling in a domestic violence context. Why then, do we treat the resolution of mediation in sexual harassment allegations differently?


Anthony, J. (2018, 3 June). Her boss drew sketches of her while she worked. When she complained, HR said he had a ‘knack for it’. Stuff. Retrieved from

Employment New Zealand. (2018). Sexual and racial harassment. Retrieved from

Human Rights Act 1993. (2015). Sexual Harassment. Retrieved from

Human Rights Commission. (n.d.). Sexual Harassment: What you need to know. Retrieved from

Long, J. (2018, 3 March). Sexual harassment a festering wound within New Zealand’s workplaces. Stuff. Retrieved from

Van Syckle, K. (2018,February 1). After Everything, Workers Are Still Scared to Report Harassment at Work [Blog post]. Retrieved from



Author: socialworknz

I'm a social work researcher in Aotearoa New Zealand

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