Sexual harassment at work

‘Sexual harassment’ is one of the most feared terms in the workspace. The other is ‘audit’. But while there are a number of checks and balances in place to deal with audits, there are very few guidelines on how to deal with sexual harassment.

Usually it’s only the people in HR who know how to deal with any harassment issues, and even then, they’re only called into play when someone feels it necessary to report any issues.

Having experienced harassment myself and having spoken to an alarming number of men and women who have experience harassment during the course of my studies on gender bias in the workplace, the number one reason people do not report harassment is because they’re so shocked that they don’t know what to do. The second reason is that they don’t want to cause any trouble.

There is an underlying sense of shame and embarrassment around ‘making a fuss’ and being labelled as a spoil sport or being overly sensitive. One of the males I spoke to said the constant jokes about being gay started to wear him down, and while there was nothing overtly antagonistic or aggressive with the comments, they were made at inappropriate times and led to him feeling like the quality of his work was being overlooked because of his sexuality.

Comments are one thing, but physical harassment becomes quite damaging to the person who has to endure it. A woman, who now runs quite a successful business, shared her experiences of being molested as an intern by the person who was supposed to be mentoring her. In her youth and naivety, she kept quiet and suffered the indignity of having to work with her abuser before she was forced to resign due to the stress it caused.

This is an all too common occurrence in the workplace and while very often the victims are young and new to the office environment, harassment knows no age limit or gender preference. There is also the fear of offending colleagues whom you could be working with for many years to come. We also have an exceptionally high unemployment rate in SA, and the pressure to hold a consistent job is immense.

Very importantly too, work spaces are largely multicultural and therefore what one person thinks is harmless fun, could be deeply offensive to another. For some, cultural norms dictate that it is unacceptable to be rude to elders or seniors, and so instead of making a fuss and in fear of reprisal, most remain quiet.

The Protection from Harassment Act No 17 of 2011 clearly states that “sexual harassment” means any:

(a) unwelcome sexual attention from a person who knows or ought reasonably to know that such attention is unwelcome;

(b) unwelcome explicit or implicit behaviour, suggestions, messages or remarks of a sexual nature that have the effect of offending, intimidating or humiliating the complainant or a related person in circumstances, which a reasonable person having regard to all the circumstances would have anticipated that the complainant or related person would be offended, humiliated or intimidated;

(c) implied or expressed promise of reward for complying with a sexually oriented request; or;

(d) implied or expressed threat of reprisal or actual reprisal for refusal to comply with a sexually oriented request.

Each work place should have very clear processes in place on how to deal with instances of sexual harassment. And if your company doesn’t have one, then it’s high time that you start the process of developing one.

It is very important to familiarise yourself with your business’ harassment policy. You might not need it, but you can always help someone who does.

However, if the victim feels like their rights are being further abused by the internal processes of the company, they may approach the Department of Labour, the police or the court of law.

Besides following process, the first and most important step is to speak about it. Tell someone, anyone, but don’t keep it bottled up inside. I believe very strongly that most of the ills in our society stem from the fact that people are afraid to talk openly about sensitive issues.

That is why from a very early age, I have already started having talks with my daughter about inappropriate behaviour. Now that she is 10 years old, we speak about abuse and rape. Forewarned is fore-armed as the saying goes. with a woman in this country being raped every four minutes, I’m not taking any chances.

Knowledge is power, and sadly, we might not be physically strong enough to overcome abuse, but we don’t have to allow the abuse to continue, there are ways to empower ourselves. We all have the right to live and work with dignity.

By Keshina Thaver