Would a Colin Craig-style text be appropriate at your work?

Beware what you text to workmates, employment experts warn.
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Beware what you text to workmates, employment experts warn.

For a month we have heard claim, counter claim, accusation, denial and the recitation of cringe worthy texts, letters and poetry.

So after the Colin Craig defamation trial, what salient lessons have we learnt about the boundaries of relationships in the workplace?

Tread warily, is the expert advice.

Colin Craig and Rachel MacGregor
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Colin Craig and Rachel MacGregor

And there are no hard and fast rules.

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Craig sent a series of messages to his then-press secretary Rachel MacGregor.

You are wonderful, you know what I mean by that

They weren't harassment, he said. She liked them in fact.

But she said they were harassment and so did her friend Taxpayers Union founder Jordan Williams. 

Williams and Craig eventually ended up in the High Court at Auckland in a defamation trial over the issue, with Craig forced to publicly read out sections of his private missives.

I slept well because I dreamed that I was on your naked legs

Employment lawyer John Hannan said any alleged sexually harassing behaviour had to be looked at "in context".

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It would depend on the circumstances whether the behaviour is deemed sexual harassment, he said.

"If it's not apparently sexual, but is kind of, 'I like you a lot', or 'I wish we could spend more time together', those can be quite difficult boundary cases," he says. 

If there were two of me, I'd marry you

Context means what may be seen as quite overt sexual flirting could be acceptable.

But alternatively, even what you may consider a quite trivial comment, could see you fall foul of the law.

It was common to see "grooming behaviour" in harassment cases, where the harassers had inappropriate conversations with colleagues or employees and treated them differently to others, said employment lawyer Kathryn Dalziel. 

"Quite often the stories you hear, it starts with a conversation or through comments about people in a sexual way. There's a sexual flavour," she says. 

"They might say, 'how's your boyfriend?' or, 'My wife doesn't understand me', that sort of thing". 

Similarly, sharing a sexual-toned meme on Facebook that colleagues found offensive could be deemed sexual harassment, however the behaviour usually had to be repeated for it to warrant harassment unless it was an act of real significance,  

WHAT THE LAW SAYS

The definition of sexual harassment comes under the Employment Relations Act, which gives a broad definition of the circumstances an harassed employee may find themselves in. 

It may include a direct or indirect request for sex with an "implied or overt" promise of preferential or detrimental treatment in their job.

It also includes using language of a sexual nature in the workplace or physical behaviour that the employee finds offensive, or has a detrimental effect on their work. 

So far this year six of the 1654 complaints made to the Employment Relations Authority were of sexual harassment. Just two were investigated, with the other claims either withdrawn or settled through mediation. 

Last year 13 sexual harassment complaints were made and seven were investigated. 

Complaints can also be laid with the Human Rights Commission. 

WHAT CAN YOU DO?

Dalziel and Hannan said anyone who felt they were being harassed at work should take it up with their company's Human Resources department. 

If that wasn't an option they should seek advice from a lawyer. 

Claims can be made to the HRC or the ERA and mediation is often required.

If the claim is successful complainants can seek damages for humiliation and loss of dignity. 

If the harassment was so bad they had to leave they could also make a constructive dismissal claim for loss of earnings. 

ERA DECISIONS 

* In 2015 Housing New Zealand Feleti Key was fired for alleged sexual harassment after a female co-worker complained he made her feel nervous. Key felt so ashamed of losing his job he pretended to go to work to avoid telling his family. Key was then ordered to be paid $20,000 after the ERA found his bosses hadn't investigated the complaint properly. 

* That same year business owner Bruce Sanson was found not guilty of sexual harassment but had to pay his worker $5000 after slapping her on the bottom in "jest". 

* An airline pilot was reinstated to his job after the ERA criticised his company for not properly investigating his alleged sexual harassment of a colleague, whom he allegedly grabbed in a hotel room during a lay over. 

 - Stuff

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