Last updated 05:00 18/11/2014
It is a blurry line between jocular behaviour and sexual harassment and those in positions of power need to be more careful, employment lawyers say.
Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority boss Roger Sutton yesterday resigned over a complaint involving sexual harassment of a staff member.
The allegation accused Sutton of harassing a senior female staffer, including making inappropriate jokes, comments and giving her an unwelcome hug.
Employment law specialist Susan Hornsby-Geluk said standards of acceptable behaviour were partly determined by the context of the work environment.
“For example, a garage may have a more robust type of banter, as opposed to a professional environment, and that does influence what’s acceptable and what’s not,” she said.
“In terms of physical contact and direct personal comments, generally that wouldn’t be acceptable except if there was some sort of friendship between the individuals. Even if it wasn’t intended to be offensive, it may have crossed the line.”
Those in high profile senior positions needed to be more careful, Hornsby-Geluk said.
“Even if [the behaviour] is not a big deal to one person, it might be offensive to another.”
A complaint of that nature would not be taken lightly, she said.
“Sexual harassment does have a reasonably high threshold but even if [the complaint] doesn’t meet that, it may still constitute inappropriate behaviour.
“Whether or not the complaint sticks, it certainly creates a negative perception around the alleged offender.”
Employment law specialist barrister Andrew Scott-Howman advises victims to directly confront the behaviour.
“It takes a lot of guts to say: ‘I don’t know if you intended to be offensive or not, but it wasn’t OK by me’,” he said.