Ending sexual harassment in the workplace

What is sexual harassment and what are your rights in the workplace?

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A recent survey by market research agency Columinate on sexual harassment in the South African workplace reveals that some 30% of women and 18% men experience sexual harassment in the workplace. Moreover, 51% of work environments do not have a clear sexual harassment policy.

“The survey shows that although sexual harassment is experienced by both genders, it is women who are predominantly targeted, says Angela Te Roller, Academic Quality Manager of the Diploma in Human Resource Management at Boston City Campus and Business College.  “The incident often goes unreported, with people fearing repercussions in their career or feeling that nothing will come of it.

While the #MeToo movement has brought new awareness to the insidiousness of sexual harassment, the subject has only been addressed, both in South Africa and globally,  from a legal standpoint in the last few years.

Although sexual harassment in South Africa is prohibited under the Protection from Harassment Act No. 17 of 2011, the National Code on Good Practice of Sexual Harassment promoting the development and implementation of policies and procedures to eliminate sexual harassment in the workplace is not legally binding.  Instead, the code provides “appropriate procedures to deal with the problem and prevent its recurrence, with policies that create  environments where employers and employees respect one another’s integrity and dignity, their privacy, and their right to equity in the workplace.”

On a global level, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted the first resolution on sexual harassment as late as 20 November 2018,  urging States to recognize the current situation of violence against women and girls.

Some of the forms of sexual harassment provided by the CCMA include:

  • Unwelcome physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct
  • All unwanted physical contact, ranging from touching to sexual assault and rape
  • Unwelcome innuendoes, suggestions and hints, sexual advances, comments with sexual overtones
  • Unwelcome gestures
  • Leveraging a position of authority to further an employee’s career in exchange for sexual favours.
  • Overlooking deserving employees for promotions or salary increases if they do not respond to sexual advances.

Dealing with sexual harassment at work

The Labour Relations Code of Good Practice in dealing with Sexual Harassment cases provides the following choices:

Informal Procedure

  • The targeted person can choose to explain to the person making the unwanted advances that the behaviour is unwelcome, making the targeted person uncomfortable. 
  • Email the perpetrator, listing the offensive behaviour.

“Keep a copy of all correspondence. Record the time and date of any unwanted behavior as evidence if you lay charges later on,” says Te Roller.  “If you are speaking to the perpetrator, keep the door open and make sure someone knows where you are.”

Formal Procedure

  • Bring this to the attention of the HR manager
  • Document everything
  • Tell someone about it

- If this happens in a home as with a domestic worker, then report it to your union or an NGO such as POWA (011 591 6803). 

The CCMA also advises that “care should be taken during any investigation of a grievance of sexual harassment that the aggrieved person is not disadvantaged, and that the position of other parties is not prejudiced if the grievance is found to be unwarranted.”

Ways to empowered yourself

  • Know your rights;
  • Focus on educating yourself, upskilling yourself through courses which can empower your position in the workplace;
  • Take a self-defense course;
  • Adopt a policy of self-nurture, making sure you have enough sleep, that you are exercising and boosting yourself with supportive self-talk.

The 16 Days of Activism provide a strong platform to address inequality and violence against women in the workplace.  Sexual harassment has emotional and psychological repercussions and consequences need to be in place to manage and stop the situation as soon as possible.

“Companies have an urgent responsibility to create a positive corporate culture where employees are safe and the rights and dignities of all staff members are respected.  Policies governing sexual harassment need to be in place, replacing a sense of entitlement with a conscious understanding that when a woman says no, it means no!” concludes Te Roller.

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