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 gender or gender identity, sexual orientation, age; treats you differently at work or school because of your age, gender, education, income level or because of a disability; chooses whether or not to employ you for reasons like your age or gender; or bullies or sexually assaults you.

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 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, a Community Law Centre, or an advocacy group like OUTLine. 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.

Responding to sexual harassment

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 the following areas of public life:

  • Government or public sector activities
  • Employment
  • Business partnerships
  • Education
  • Public places, vehicles and facilities
  • The provision of goods and services
  • The provision of land, housing and accommodation
  • Industrial and professional associations, qualifying bodies and vocational training bodies.

Here's what you can do if you are being harassed: 

  • Keep a record of the incidents that you find offensive.
  • Talk it over with someone you trust and who will keep the information confidential. This may help clarify your best course of action.
  • If you feel confident and safe, confront the person who is harassing you and tell them that you don’t like their behaviour. Tell them that you do not like what they are doing and that it is unlawful. 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 these steps aren’t affective or are inappropriate you can seek advice and assistance from:

  • A sexual harassment contact person at work
  • A manager or school counsellor
  • The Human Rights Commission
  • Your union representative or a lawyer
  • A professional disciplinary body such as the Medical Association
  • The Department of Labour within the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment
  • The Police (especially if you have been sexually assaulted).

We've created a Sexual Harassment Guide which will help provide you directions and answer any questions that you may have.

What employers can do to prevent sexual harassment

If sexual harassment occurs in the course of employment, the employer can be held liable – whether or not the employer was aware of the problem. Employers can protect their workplace against sexual harassment by implementing an effective sexual harassment prevention programme which might include the following measures:

  • Appointment and training of a sexual harassment prevention coordinator
  • Publicising a clear and comprehensive company policy statement about sexual harassment
  • Providing sexual harassment prevention training for staff
  • Ensuring that staff are aware of the company’s policy and procedures relating to sexual harassment
  • Setting up a process to deal with sexual harassment complaints.

Responding to bullying, harassment and/or violence

Bullying, harassment and/or violence at school are serious problems whether they are happening at work or school.

The Commission can help in three ways:

  • By getting involved in addressing the situation directly, if the bullying or harassment is linked to one of the grounds of discrimination in the Human Rights Act (such as someone’s sex, race, sexual orientation or disability – all the grounds are here
  • By providing advice on the wider human rights aspects of a situation, depending on the facts
  • By putting you in touch with organisations with specific responsibilities for dealing with complaints about bullying at school, so you can get the right support and help for the situation you are dealing with.

The Commission has also published an analysis of the human rights issues in situations of school bullying, harassment and/or violence, to help make schools safer for everyone: School violence, bullying and abuse: A human rights analysis and is part of a group which has developed a trial Guide for schools, on preventing and responding to bullying. You can read the Guide here.

The Commission has also created a training kit to help employers and employees respond to workplace bullying. You can view it here.

Responding to 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.

Using your rights as a prisoner

While prisoners no longer enjoy freedom of movement, they retain the majority of their human rights and can complain if they believe these rights have been breached.

In particular prisoners have the right to be treated with humanity, dignity and respect while in detention. For this reason there are a number of human rights standards in place to ensure people in detention are safe.

If you want to complain about your treatment in prison the Commission can help in two ways:

  • help sort a problem directly, particularly if your complaint is linked to one of the grounds in the Human Rights Act such as race or disability
  • provide information about organisations which have  specific responsibilities for complaints about prisons.

Initial steps for you to take yourself: Use the internal prison complaints avenues provided by the prison you are in and/or the Inspector of Corrections. For more information about this: see the Department of Corrections information sheet on making a complaint.

Contact the Inspector of Corrections at Private Box 1206, Wellington or on free phone 0800 225 697.

If internal complaints processes do not resolve your complaint, you should contact the Office of the Ombudsmen, which can investigate complaints about all government agencies including prisons. Phone the office on the prison complaints free phone at 0800 662 837 or the complaints free phone at 0800 802 602.

Responding to 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.

Using you accommodation, property, landlords and human rights

The Human Rights Act says that it is unlawful for you to be treated less favourably than someone else because of any of the 13 prohibited grounds of discrimination in the Human Rights Act.

If you are looking to rent or purchase a house, or you're seeking accommodation in a motel or hotel, a landlord can't refuse to rent you a flat because of something like your sexual orientation or age, and a motel or hotel owner cannot refuse to let you and your same-sex partner stay if that same accommodation is available to a heterosexual couple.

If you feel that you have been discriminated in this area because of something like your age, gender, or sexual orientation you can contact the Commission. Read more about accommodation, property, landlords and human rights here.

Human rights, sexual orientation, sex and gender identity.

The Human Rights Act makes it unlawful to discriminate based on:

  • Sex – includes pregnancy and childbirth, and discrimination against transgender and
  • Sexual orientation – being heterosexual, homosexual, lesbian or bisexual.

Born Free and Equal is the Commission’s guide on human rights, sexual orientation, sex and gender identity and who can help you if you have been discriminated against. You can read it here.

One example of how the Human Rights Commission can help in this area is mediating a complaint following someone being excluded from attending the ball because they wanted to attend with a partner of the same-sex.

As this may be unlawful discrimination under the Human Rights Act thee the Commission would seek to mediate the matter through its informal, confidential and free disputes resolution process. If this process did not arrive at a resolution, the parties would have the right to take the complaint to the Human Rights Review Tribunal.

Help for Trans people

The Commission has created a resource which focuses on the common human rights issues faced by whakawāhine, tangata ira tane, fa’afafine, fakaleiti, akava’ine, trans, gender queer and other gender diverse and gender questioning people in New Zealand. View the resource here.

Responding to structural discrimination

Structural discrimination may play a role in perpetuating inequalities in health, education, and the public service. We've create a report that examines what barriers exist, and what is happening to break them down. Read the report here.

Positive discrimination

Different treatment may be necessary to enable a particular group of people to achieve equality with others. Both the Human Rights Act and the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act recognise that to overcome discrimination positive actions may be needed to enable particular groups to achieve equal outcomes with other groups in our society.

These positive actions are called ‘special measures’ or ‘affirmative action’. The Commission has created Guidelines on Measures to Ensure Equality that you can read here.

Celebrating your rights

The Commission facilitates a number of programmes, projects, and events that allow you to celebrate Social Equality:

  • Monitoring Human Rights in the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery: The Canterbury earthquakes represent New Zealand’s greatest contemporary human rights challenge. The aim of this report is to encourage influencers and decision-makers to put human rights principles at the centre of decision-making in civil emergencies, and more broadly when developing social policies.
  • Pink Shirt Day: is run in New Zealand by the Mental Health Foundation and is about working together to prevent or stop bullying by celebrating people's difference and promoting positive relationships. The Commission helps to raise awareness of the Day.
  • The National Day of Silence: the Commission is an official supporter of this day of action in which students vow to take a form of silence to call attention to the silencing effect of homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying, name-calling and harassment in schools.
  • The White Camellia awards: honour organisations who have committed to increasing gender equality in the workplace. The awards are organised in part by the Human Rights Commission.