Managing Workplace Bullying and Harassment Complaints

How to manage allegations of bullying, sexual or racial harassment in the workplace.

Complaints made in the workplace can have a serious and ongoing negative effect for everyone involved. Did you know that your business has obligations under the Health and Safety Act to ensure your workers are healthy and safe at work? Its important you take swift action to fairly investigate and resolve any complaints that are made.

As an employer, its important that you create an environment in the workplace where this type of behaviour is not tolerated. This can be done by making it clear what behaviour is and isn’t appropriate, enforcing this consistently (even in more relaxed environments like Christmas parties or other work related social events), and making it as easy as possible for victims to come forward if they feel that they have been at the receiving end of any inappropriate behaviour.

If serious allegations have been made, you may need to consider whether it is appropriate to bring in specialist advisors or counsellors to help the employer and employee through this difficult area. If the behaviour could constitute a sexual offence or includes violence, then it could be a criminal offence and the affected employee should be encouraged to report it to the Police.

In a retail environment it is possible that our employees could be subject to sexual or racial harassment by customers or clients of the employer. If this happens than the employee should put their complaint to you in writing. You need to investigate and, if you determine that the behaviour happened, you must take whatever steps are practicable to stop if happening again. It is important that confidentiality is maintained by all the parties involved in this process.

If an employee has been harassed in your workplace they may choose to resolve it by using an informal process such as approaching the perpetrator. If they are not satisfied with the responses, or do not want to do this, these forms of harassment are covered by both the Employment Relations Act and the Human Rights Act. The victim can either lodge a personal grievance under the Employment Relations Act or lodge a complaint using the Human Rights Act. They have a choice as to which way they want to go to take the matter further, but they cannot do both.

Workplace bullying is repeated and unreasonable behaviour directed towards an individual or a group that can cause physical or mental harm. Bullying can be physical, verbal, psychological or social. This may include victimising, humiliating, intimidating or threatening a person.

A single or occasional incident of insensitive or rude behaviour towards another person isn’t considered workplace bullying, but it could become more serious and shouldn’t be ignored.

Bullying can happen not just between managers and staff, but also among co-workers, contractors, customers, clients or visitors.

Sexual harassment can happen to, or be perpetrated by, someone of any sex. It can be subtle or more obvious. Some examples of sexual harassment include:

  • personally sexually offensive comments;
  • sexual or smutty jokes;
  • unwanted comments or teasing about a person’s sexual activities or private life;
  • offensive hand or body gestures;
  • physical contact such as patting, pinching or touching;
  • provocative posters with a sexual connotation; and/ or
  • persistent and unwelcome social invitations (or telephone calls or emails) from workmates at work or at home.

Someone is racially harassed either directly or indirectly if someone expresses hostility against, or brings the employee into contempt or ridicule, because of their race, colour, or ethnic or national origins. Some examples could include:

  • making offensive remarks about a person’s race;
  • copying or making fun of the way a person speaks;
  • making jokes about a person’s race;
  • calling people by racist names; and/ or
  • deliberately mispronouncing or mocking people’s names.

If you do have a complaint made by an employee, its important to take it seriously, and begin an investigation process.

An example of what a full and fair investigation process may look like is as follows:

  1. Keep all parties informed: Inform all complainants that they have been heard, and that the company is working on a plan to determine the best way forward. Let them know these things take time, and its important the company takes the time to get it right. Inform them communication lines remain open, and they can contact you at any time should they have any concerns or questions.
  2. Inform the person the allegations are against: The person the allegations are against should be informed about the next steps of the investigation, and the organisation should keep them updated on progress. Its important to offer ongoing support and reassurance to this person throughout the process.
  3. Conduct an initial assessment: Conduct an initial assessment to determine the nature and severity of the allegations. This can involve contacting the complainants and any potential witnesses and gathering written statements / evidence.
  4. Plan your investigation: A plan should be made for an investigation process, including who will be interviewed, the questions to be asked, and the evidence to be collected.
  5. Conduct interviews: Interviews should be conducted with anybody who can give insight into the situation. It’s better to cast the net wide here, to ensure you are getting a full picture of what may have been happening. Also, important to keep in mind privacy requirements, don’t disclose information that should be kept confidential. An example of this – parties not directly involved should be informed that an investigation into the workplace environment is being conducted, not that it is about specific people.
  6. Document evidence: Evidence should be documented and collected, including emails, statements, text messages, and any other documentation.
  7. Evaluate the evidence: The evidence collected should be evaluated by relevant parties (including key decision makers, business owner etc).

After the investigation process, you should have a clearer picture as to whether:

  • There is any risk to the business in meeting Health and Safety obligations around ensuring employee wellbeing.
  • There are any disciplinary issues that will need to be addressed (whether it be any identified misconduct, performance issues etc).
  • What the culture/environment of the workplace looks like, and what may need to be done to improve it.
  • Whether any workers or managers require any formal training or coaching.

Our Advice Service can guide you through this process, and provide practical solutions for any allegations you may have received from staff. Please contact us on 0800 472 472 (1800 128 086 from Australia) or [email protected].

Updated February 2024.

Our Supporters


Would you like one of our team to give you a call? Let us know and we will get back to you.