Personal grievances are a standard part of employment law in New Zealand. Personal grievances protect employees from an employer's unjustifiable actions, including unjustified dismissal, discrimination, and sexual harassment. Employees have a 90-day limit to raise a personal grievance to their employer. Recently, however, there has been an amendment in the law to allow for an extension of time for raising a personal grievance for sexual harassment. This article will discuss the changes in the law and how they may affect your business.

What are Personal Grievances?

Personal grievances cover an extensive range of actions deemed "unjustifiable" for an employer to do. This includes:

  • discrimination;
  • unjustified dismissal;
  • harassment; or 
  • breach of employment conditions. 

Employees who believe they have experienced a grievance can lodge a grievance with the Employment Relations Authority ('ERA'). 

What is Sexual Harassment?

Sexual harassment is a direct or indirect request for sexual activity that can be:

  • written;
  • verbal;
  • communicated through images; or 
  • physical behaviour. 

For example, an employer who promises an employee a pay rise or promotion in exchange for sexual contact would be an instance of sexual harassment. Additionally, sexual harassment in the workplace can look like:

  • making inappropriate hand or body gestures;
  • telling vulgar jokes or sexual anecdotes;
  • sending suggestive messages, emails or notes; or
  • making offensive comments about someone's sexual history or orientation.

As an employer, you are responsible for preventing and  responding to sexual harassment in the workplace. If your employee complains about being sexually harassed, you must investigate the situation and take appropriate steps for it not to occur again.

Recent Changes to the Law

Previously, employees had to raise personal grievances for sexual harassment within a standard 90-day time frame. However, as of 12 June 2023, employees can raise a personal grievance for sexual harassment within 12 months of the act occurring.

Notably, the extended timeframe starts from the day the sexual harassment occurred or came to the employee's notice, depending on whichever is later. Ultimately, the extended time frame allows workers to:

  • have more opportunities to seek justice without rushing the claims process; and 
  • process their experience before making a decision.

'Resolution of Employment Relationships' Clause

The 'Resolution of Employment Relationships' clause is a mandatory provision in employment agreements in New Zealand. The clause outlines the process for resolving disputes between employers and employees. Generally, the resolution covers alternative dispute resolutions like negotiation and mediation before seeking redress at the ERA or Employment Court if necessary.

Another amendment to the legislation is that all employment agreements must include an updated section for the resolution of the employment relationships clause to address the extended timeframe. While general personal grievances have a time frame of 90 days, the time frame for sexual harassment grievances is now 12 months.

How Should My Business Respond to the Changes?

You should ensure that your employment agreement templates are up to date and amended immediately. The 'Resolution of Employment Relationship' clause must refer to the: 

  • 12-month time frame for sexual harassment claims; and 
  • 90-day time frame for all other grievances.

If you do not update the clause, there is a risk that employees may apply for leave to raise a personal grievance beyond the 12 months. Any new employment agreements that the business issues must include the new clause.

For your existing employees, you should ensure that they are made aware of the changes. For minor legislative changes where a singular clause may need changing, you should provide current employees with a letter of variation signed and dated by both parties. You may also want to check your employee handbook and workplace policies to ensure the new timeframe is also amended.

Key Takeaways 

While employees must claim a personal grievance within 90 days of the grievance occurring, the time frame varies for sexual harassment grievances. As of 12 June 2023, employees have 12 months from the date they experience sexual harassment to pursue a personal grievance claim. As a result of the change, employers should:

  • update their employment agreements and workplace agreements; and
  • ensure their employees are aware of the change.