Guidance for workers

Using your rights

Discrimination happens when someone is treated unfairly or less favourably than another person in the same or similar circumstances. You don’t have to put up with behaviour you don’t like and discrimination is often repeated unless action is taken. It may impact on how you feel about work, study or accessing services.

Employers also have a responsibility to take steps to prevent discrimination and harassment and to respond to complaints. This includes harassment by employees or clients.

You may have been discriminated against if someone: makes offensive remarks or jokes about your race, colour, ethnicity or nationality at work; treats you differently at work because of your age, gender, or because of a disability; chooses whether or not to employ you for reasons like your age, gender, ethnicity; or bullies or sexually assaults you in the workplace.

Discrimination may also be unintentional. The person who is being offensive may be unaware of its effect, but they can still be held responsible. What is important is how the behaviour affects you or others.

What you can do about work-based discrimination

You should firstly keep a record of incidents you find offensive. It's also a good idea to talk it over with someone you trust and who will keep the information confidential. This may help clarify your best course of action.

Speak to the person who is harassing you and tell them you want them to stop, otherwise you will complain. You can do this in person, in a letter, or with a union or other representative. If this doesn’t work, or is inappropriate, you can seek advice and assistance from:

  • a discrimination contact person (many workplaces have a discrimination policy)
  • a manager or school counsellor
  • the Human Rights Commission
  • your union representative or a lawyer
  • a professional disciplinary body
  • the police
  • the Employment Relations Service (if you have been harassed at work).
  • Phone 0800 20 90 20.

Other organisations and individuals who can help you with initial advice and clarification include your local Member of Parliament, your union representative, a Community Law Centre, or an advocacy group like NEON. You can visit the more info to see a full list of groups who can help.

What the Commission can do

We can advise you on whether your complaint is covered by the Human Rights Act and if it is we can help with mediation.

If mediation doesn’t work, we can advise you on your legal options. Learn more in our Enquiries, Complaints and Support section, or call our Infoline on 0800 496 877. Our service is free and confidential.

The main focus of our service is on resolving disputes involving unlawful discrimination, such as on the grounds of age, gender, ethnicity, or disability. But we can also help you with advice on broader human rights issues.

What happens if you think your human rights have been breached

If you think you have suffered a breach of your human rights, our Enquiries, Complaints and Support section has more information about how we can help, and your options.

If your complaint involves discrimination and we cannot resolve it informally, you will be entitled to ask the Office of Human Rights Proceedings to provide you with free legal representation.

If you have further questions about the laws that protect your rights you can view our Frequently Asked Questions section.

Your rights as a job-seeker

An employer should only ask a job-seeker questions that have relevance to the job advertised. If questions are asked that have no relevance to the job (whether in an interview or on a job application form) then you can ask the Commission for advice. Learn more here.

The Commission has also published a guide on many common pre-employment situations. To read the guide click here: Getting a job: An A-Z for employers and employees.

Using your rights as a person with disabilities

The Human Rights Act makes it clear that reasonable steps should be taken in work environments and in the delivery of public services to recognise and accommodate people with disabilities. Read more here.

Using your language rights at work

Under the Human Rights Act, it is unlawful for an employer to treat an employee less favourably because of their ethnicity or national origin. Someone’s first language is usually related to their ethnicity so if an employer tries to stop someone from using their first language, that may be discrimination. Read more here.

The Commission has also published an information sheet on this issue called English language only’ policies in the workplace.

Protecting against race-based discrimination at work

Under the Human Rights Act, it is unlawful for an employer to treat an employee less favourably because of their ethnicity or national origin. For instance, a person of Māori descent may not be denied employment because they wear moko visibly. Learn more here.

Discrimination on the grounds of religious belief and/or ethnic or national origins is not allowed under the Human Rights Act and the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act. This means that if your workplace does not let you wear cultural or religious items at work like taonga it may be unlawful discrimination. Learn more here.

Workplace safety

You have the right to a safe work environment, but bullying in the workplace happens and can be a difficult issue to deal with. The Commission has produced a resource on preventing and dealing with workplace bullying. You can read it here.

Your rights and redundancy

The Commission has created a comprehensive resources about human rights and redundancy. This includes advice to employers about their rights and responsibilities in relation to redundancy. You can read more here.

Sexual harassment at work

Sexual harassment is one of the the single most commonly complained about issue within the prohibited ground of sex. Sexual harassment is unwelcome or offensive sexual behaviour that is repeated or significant enough to have a harmful effect on you.

The Human Rights Act makes this unlawful when it occurs in employment. The Commission has created a Sexual Harassment Guide than you can read here.

Age discrimination

New Zealand has one of the highest rates of participation of older workers in the OECD. Age discrimination based on implicit stereotypes about young and old workers continues to be a problem, although age discrimination is seen to be less prevalent than in the past.

The Commission has created a guide that provides information both on older worker’s rights and responsibilities and tips for employers. Read it here.

Gender discrimination at work

The Human Rights Act protects you from being discriminated against by your employer at work. Discrimination includes being treated unfairly or less favourably than another person in the same or similar circumstances, because:

  • you are a woman
  • you are pregnant
  • you wish to have children in the future
  • you have responsibility for children or other dependants
  • you are married or single.

Even before you get a job, employers cannot discriminate against you because you are a woman and the same applies while in employment. Read more about your rights as a women in the workforce here.

The pay equity gap

The pay difference between what men and women earn for similar work continues to be a major issue for equality and fairness at work. In response to this, the Commission has created a monitoring framework on pay and employment equity for women. Read more here.

Celebrating your rights

The Commission facilitates a number of programmes, projects, and events that allow you to celebrate your EEO rights:

  • 'The Right to Work': provides effective solutions that have resulted in increased youth employment in New Zealand.
  • What's Working: identifies what is working as we strive for fair and equitable employment for all New Zealand workers, across all groups, in the public sector workforce.
  • "Crown Entities and the Good Employer": This web application allows Crown entities to track their EEO progress.
  • Good Employer Advice: The Commission assessed the annual reports of Crown entities and produced a report on how to be a 'good employer'.
  • NEON: is a partnership between the Commission and the EEO Trust. It provides work-related advice and a comprehensive work-related guides.
  • The Census of Women’s Participation: reports on how women fare in many areas of professional and public life.