We work in diverse environments, each with its own values, ways of doing things and interpretations. Despite this, no one has the right to harass another person.
How do we define sexual harassment?
The Good Practice Code about the dealing with sexual harassment in the workplace, defines sexual harassment as: “Undesirable behaviour of a sexual nature that damages the rights of an employee and which is a countermeasure for equality in the workplace.” This behaviour includes any physical, verbal or non-verbal sexual actions which makes the victim uncomfortable.
Make sure it is sexual harassment:
Examples of sexual harassment are thus proposals, messages or comments with a sexual undertone. The person responsible for the behaviour would be able to foresee that the receiver would feel intimidated or humiliated. Sexual harassment can also take place when someone implies a reward or promise for any behaviour that is in connection with a sexual nature; or when there is a direct or indirect threat or resistance of benefits linked to the refusal to partake in a sexual orientated request. This also includes repeated inappropriate touching.
Remember: Both men and women can be sexually harassed. The victim is not necessarily from the opposite gender.
Legislation attempts to protect victims of harassment, specifically sexual harassment, as part of the right of all South Africans to live their lives free from any form of violence or discrimination, whether from public or private sources.
The implication thereof is that people cannot even send an anonymous SMS with a sexual undertone if this type of attention is unwanted.
If you are a victim of any type of sexual harassment, do not keep quiet!
You can directly tell the person harassing you that the behaviour or communication is unacceptable and that it should be stopped. If you want to report a complaint about harassment you can approach the manager, Human Resources Department, or the ethics official in your organisation. Be aware that different role players in your organisation will act completely different to the same harassment case. Different departments and role players must meet and discuss the matter together. Keep all the evidence that is applicable and be honest about your experience. Stick to the facts!
Tips for people who must deal with matters relating to sexual harassment:
- In larger companies, people are often informed about sexual harassment in the induction programme. There is usually a formal policy in place as well. If there is no policy in place the complaint should still be investigated.
- Employers should have regular discussions with employees about sexual misconduct. It does not help to only have one discussion session. As with other behavioural changes in the workplace, people should constantly receive simple, direct messages to know exactly what their company’s policy is in terms of this type of violation.
- Be creative! It does not help to just hand out pamphlets to make people aware of sexual harassment. Try distributing short video clips or colourful pamphlets to bring the message home.
- Experts from outside or focus groups that can talk to the applicable group of employees can also shed light on potential risks.
- Legal teams, Human Resource Managers and ethics officials can evaluate the company’s weak points together and try to protect the company’s reputation at all costs.
- Employees sometimes share feelings on social media more easily. The company’s communication practitioner should monitor these platforms continuously. It may provide clues about underlying cases of sexual harassment in the business.
- All conversations must be kept confidential and handled with the necessary sensitivity.
- Damage to the reputation of the company and its key players can be greatly reduced if you respond quickly; preferably within the first twenty-four hours after reporting.
- Confirm that the company will do an independent investigation and that there will be no room for further harassment.
Sexual harassment in the workplace is regarded as a serious offense and is strictly prohibited by various South African laws; including the Employment Equity Act, the Labour Relations Act and the Protection from Harassment Act.
The Employment Equity Act provides that if an employer fails to take the necessary steps in cases of alleged sexual harassment, the employer itself also violates the Employment Equity Act.
Prevention remains better than cure. Although drastic and swift action in the case of sexual harassment can significantly limit damage, it is essential for your company to have thorough systems and effective communication in place before such a complaint is reported.