THE FACTS ABOUT SEXUAL HARASSMENT


Sexual harassment in the workplace takes many forms besides physical contact. So what exactly counts as sexual harassment, and what can you do about it?


Often, the victim of this form of abuse is a junior staff member who fears they might lose their job if they complain. ‘I was a junior graphic designer,' says Rebecca,* ‘And it was my direct manager, a man who was 20 to 30 years my senior, who was harassing me. It started mildly – just comments about my appearance in general or what I was wearing. It made me feel uncomfortable, but I ignored it. 

Then he started messaging me after hours. When I didn't respond, he began harassing me even more at work. He would set up private meetings in a small boardroom office, where he would make inappropriate sexual comments to me. It got worse and worse until eventually, I couldn't stand it anymore and I reported him. Thankfully, he was asked to leave the company. Looking back, I can’t believe I let it go on for so long, but I was so young and he was my senior so I just didn’t know what to do.’

Does this sound familiar? It’s a sad reality, unfortunately. A South African study done by research agency Columinate found that 30% of women (and 18% of men) reported that they had been victims of unwanted sexual advances in the workplace.

SO, WHAT COUNTS AS HARASSMENT?
According to HR director Heloise van Heerden, ‘Sexual harassment is any form of unwanted or unwelcome sexual conduct at the workplace.' Of course, unwanted physical contact is harassment, but there’s more to it. A late-night email from a co-worker telling you how hot you looked that day; a link over Gmail chat from your boss leading to an explicit website; an inappropriate comment from a colleague… All of these are examples of sexual harassment. Just because there’s no physical contact doesn’t mean it’s okay.

Jose Jorge, Employment Director at law firm Cliffe Dekker Hofmeyr adds that ‘Sexual harassment may include verbal conduct such as innuendos and comments with sexual overtones, and non-verbal conduct such as gestures, indecent exposure and displaying or sending sexually explicit pictures.’



WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT
‘Many employers will have a sexual harassment policy and process, which will outline the steps you should take if you are being harassed,’ says Van Heerden. ‘As a general rule, if you feel you have been sexually harassed, talk to your Human Resources representative or your manager.' And if they don't take it seriously? Jorge suggests that you go to the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA). This is an independent court that resolves disputes between employees and employers. If your case has merit and your harasser is found guilty, your employer might have to compensate you in some way. *Not her real name

EMPLOYER, TAKE NOTE
The Labour Relations Act Code of Good Practice on Sexual Harassment sets out the best ways for employers to deal with complaints. If an employee comes to you with allegations of sexual harassment, here’s what you need to do:

  • Take it seriously. If you fail to investigate the complaint or to take appropriate action you could be penalised by law.
  • Stay objective. Don’t take sides and don’t make any assumptions without finding out the facts.
  • Keep it confidential. You are obliged to protect the privacy of the accuser and the accused. 
  • Follow your company’s sexual harassment policy.
  • Ensure that all parties are treated with fairness.

WRONGFULLY ACCUSED?
It sometimes happens that an employee is wrongfully accused of harassment. ‘Stay calm and do not engage with your accuser,’ recommends Van Heerden. ‘If you do, it might be seen as you trying to interfere with the process and intimidate them.’ The right thing to do is simply state your case to your employer, following the prescribed processes. ‘Remember to present any evidence or witnesses that can support your case,’ she adds. ‘Most importantly, know your rights, and if in doubt, talk to someone who can give you advice and assist you during the process.’

DIRECTORY
CCMA National Office
28 Harrison Street, Johannesburg
011 377-6650 / 6600
info@ccma.org.za

By Erin Coe

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THE FACTS ABOUT SEXUAL HARASSMENT THE FACTS ABOUT SEXUAL HARASSMENT Reviewed by Jet Club on October 10, 2019 Rating: 5

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