How to deal with sexual harassment in the workplace

What is sexual harassment?

The code of good practice on handling sexual harassment in the workplace, 2015 (“the Code”) defined sexual harassment as:

"...any unwanted conduct, which is sexual in nature, and can be physical, verbal or non-verbal. The conduct must affect the dignity of the person affected or create a negative or hostile environment. Sexual harassment is relevant in a workplace if granting sexual favours becomes a condition of employment, or refusal to do so affects employment decisions, or if it unreasonably affects the employees' work or creates a hostile environment." 

Forms of sexual harassment and sexual favouritism 

1) Sexual harassment may include unwelcome physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct, but isn’t limited to: A boss standing and putting his hand on secretary's arm while she looks at his hand.

  • Physical conduct of a sexual nature that includes all unwanted physical contact,
    • ranging from touching,
    • to sexual assault and rape, and
    • includes a strip search by or in the presence of the opposite sex.
       
  • Verbal forms of sexual harassment that includes;
    • unwelcome insinuations,
    • suggestions and hints,
    • sexual advances,
    • comments with sexual overtones,
    • sex-related jokes or insults,
    • or unwelcome graphic comments about a person's body made in their presence or directed toward them,
    • unwelcome and inappropriate enquiries about a person's sex life, and
    • unwelcome whistling directed at a person or group of persons.
       
  • Non-verbal forms of sexual harassment including;
    • unwelcome gestures,
    • indecent exposure, and
    • the unwelcome display of sexually explicit pictures and objects.
       
  • Quid pro quo harassment occurs where an owner, employer, supervisor, member of management or co-employee, undertakes or attempts to influence the process of employment, promotion, training, discipline, dismissal, salary increase or other benefits of an employee or job applicant, in exchange for sexual favours.

2) Sexual favouritism exists where a person who is in a position of authority rewards only those who respond to his/her sexual advances, whilst other deserving employees who don’t submit themselves to any sexual advances are denied promotions, merit rating or salary increases.

If you are aware of sexual harassment incidents at your workplace, you can play a major role by:

  • bringing the seriousness of harassment to the attention of management or your human resources (HR) unit,
  • helping to formulate and implement appropriate policies, and
  • helping victims deal with the consequences of harassment.

Creating a safe work environment

Many practical steps can be taken, as part of an integrated programme, to counter harassment:

1) A clear policy from management

  • Management must develop a clear definition of, and policy on sexual harassment.
  • Concerned people should also help to make the need for such policies known.

2) Awareness of the problem, and of own, and others' rights A back view of a male employee presenting to his colleagues in a boardroom

  • Managers and all employees (male and female) must become aware of the problems inherent in harassment, and must know how to handle it.

If a clear policy exists and is well promoted, both the person being harassed, and the person considering harassing someone, will know what the individual's rights are – what’s acceptable, and what isn’t; also where the person being harassed can lodge a complaint.

3) Complaints and disciplinary procedure

  • There must be clear guidelines on reporting and disciplinary procedures in cases of harassment, and these must be communicated to all staff members.
  • Appropriate staff members can be selected, appointed and trained as complaints officers with authority to institute disciplinary measures when necessary.

In large companies, counsellors can be appointed and trained to provide support and to give advice to staff who are sexually harassed or to counsel harassers if required. These may be the same people as the complaints officers, and could possibly also sensitise and train managers and supervisors in the implementation of the policy.

4) Education

Employers should include the issue of sexual harassment in their orientation, training and education programmes of employees.

5) Confidentiality

Grievances regarding sexual harassment must be handled in a confidential manner in regards to both parties:

  • Only appropriate parties (appropriate management, the aggrieved and their representatives, the alleged perpetrator and their representatives, witnesses and an interpreter if necessary) may be present in disciplinary enquiries.
  • It must be ensured that either party (or their representative) receives necessary information to enable them to prepare for any proceedings outlined by the National Code of Good Practice on Sexual Harassment.

6) Other supporting measures

  • Confidence training and development of a healthy self-esteem will help employees to deal with harassers.
  • An effective employment equity programme, that ensures well-planned career paths for all - based on merit, while also ensuring that people disadvantaged in the past get a fair deal - will reduce the vulnerability of individuals to harassment by people who abuse their power and authority.
  • A positive corporate culture, in which the rights and dignity of all staff members are respected, and a positive example is set by management, will do much to create a healthy environment in which sexual harassment can’t flourish.

So what can you do if you’re experiencing sexual harassment at work? 

  • Be clear and firm. If the person harassing you is told when it happens the first time that you don’t approve and don’t find it funny, they might back off. Be polite, but firm, and don’t giggle. This might be interpreted as a tacit type of consent.
     
  • Tell others. Don’t keep quiet; this will only make you more vulnerable. Harassers like isolating their victims – physically and socially. If you tell others what’s going on you might also find out that you’re not the only one experiencing such situations. If more than one person lays a complaint, it significantly strengthens the case against the harasser. 
     
  • Don't doubt yourself. Harassers often try and pass something off as a joke, however, if it’s continuously at your expense, or attacks your sense of dignity, you’re being harassed. Don’t allow harassers to make you doubt your observation, how their actions make you feel or that you’re overreacting.

    A close up of a sexual harassment complaint form on a desk with a pen
  • Safety in numbers. Make sure that you’re not alone with this person behind closed doors. Take a colleague with you if you feel threatened, and insist that doors be left open if you have to be in a meeting. Make sure that somebody knows where you are at all times.
     
  • Report the matter. Follow procedures to lay a complaint – and keep records of all correspondence in this regard. If a complaint has been laid and your employers continue to ignore the situation and take no action, they could be liable for damage claims.
     
  • Keep records. If you want to lay charges, it’s much more convincing if you can give names, dates, places and the names of possible witnesses, than when your charges are unproven. Anyone who has witnessed any of these events can be called to testify if there’s a disciplinary hearing.

National Code of Good Practice on Sexual Harassment

The national code 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 and dignity, their privacy, and their right to equity in the workplace.

Although this Code isn’t legally binding, it provides useful guidance on how an employer should deal with allegations of sexual harassment, and encourages the development and implementation of policies and procedures to prevent sexual discrimination. Harassment of a worker is a form of unfair discrimination. Sexual harassment is also prohibited under the Protection from Harassment Act No. 17 of 2011

The Employment Equity Act (EAA) No. 55 of 1998 provides that if it’s alleged that a worker has contravened a provision of the EEA by, for example, harassing another worker and the employer fails to take the necessary steps to deal with the allegations of sexual harassment, the employer is deemed also to have disregarded the EEA. Section 60(3) of EEA effectively holds an employer indirectly responsible for the unlawful, discriminatory conduct of its workers.

For more information or assistance

The content on this page was last updated on 23 October 2018