Our reader’s question this week is on behalf of a friend, who is allegedly the target of sexual harassment in her workplace.
According to the reader, her friend recently confided in her that one of her (the friend’s) male colleagues has been making unwelcome sexual advances towards her for quite some time. She would like to know what steps her friend should take to address this sensitive issue.
One of the reasons why the lady approached her friend – instead of someone at her place of work – is because the alleged sexual advances is coming from one of the senior managers and she fears that she will be victimised or just not believed if she were to approach any of the other senior staff.
The reader’s friend says that the said manager is bombarding her with SMS’s of a sexual nature. He also allegedly touches her inappropriately without her consent and even attempted to kiss her once, but she was able to escape from his embrace.
The matter of sexual harassment is a very complex one and the guidelines to navigate each situation are set out in the Code of Good Practice. The objective of this code is to eliminate sexual harassment in the workplace.
The code provides appropriate procedures to deal with sexual harassment and prevent its recurrence.
It encourages and promotes the development and implementation of policies and procedures that will lead to the creation of workplaces that are free of sexual harassment, where employers and employees respect one another’s integrity, dignity, privacy and their right to equity.
Although this code applies to the working environment as a guide to employers, employees and applicants for employment, the perpetrators and victims of sexual harassment may also include owners, employers, managers, supervisors, employees, job applicants, clients, suppliers, contractors and others having dealings with a business.
The test – according to the code – to establish whether the alleged sexual behaviour is unwelcome conduct that violates the rights of an employee and is a barrier to equity in the workplace is: whether the harassment is on the prohibited grounds of sex and/or gender and/or sexual orientation; whether the sexual conduct was unwelcome; the nature and extent of the sexual conduct; and the impact of the sexual conduct on the employee.
The nature and extent of the conduct must be unwelcome and of a sexual nature, and include physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct.
Physical conduct includes all unwelcome contact ranging from touching to sexual assault and rape, as well as a strip search by or in the presence of the opposite sex.
Verbal conduct includes unwelcome innuendos, suggestions, hints, sexual advances, comments with sexual overtones, sex-related jokes or insults, graphic comments about a person’s body made in their presence or to them, inappropriate enquiries about a person’s sex life, whistling of a sexual nature and the sending by electronic means or otherwise of sexually explicit text.
Non-verbal conduct includes unwelcome gestures, indecent exposure and the display or sending by electronic means or otherwise of sexually explicit pictures or objects.
My advice to the reader’s friend is to make an appointment with a psychologist as soon as possible in order to put the harassment and the effects thereof on medical record. She should then report the issue to her human resources manager or any other senior person in the company.
I also advise her to take sick leave, if she has due, and to see an attorney as soon as she is medically fit.
Although sexual harassment allegations should be taken very seriously and be dealt with in the appropriate manner, it is also important not to confuse it with normal office banter.
Employees should however be very careful with what they say or do. In one case, a male employee had a dream that he slept with one of his female colleagues and told his co-workers about it.
The object of his dream reported him to management and he was subsequently dismissed on grounds of sexual harassment. Although the dismissal was reversed by the CCMA, this example goes a long way in highlighting the pitfalls when it comes to sexual harassment allegations.
Companies should ensure that all employees are informed of company procedures and the content of the code.
Send your labour and other workplace related questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Wikus van Rensburg is a well-respected labour law attorney in Port Elizabeth in Nelson Mandela Bay.
Full Stop Communications
On behalf of:
Wikus van Rensburg Attorneys
Communications management | Media management | Media monitoring | Public relations | Press releases | Copywriting | Ghostwriting | Editing | Translation | Corporate identity | Advertising | Graphic design | Presentations | Photography | Events management