Consequences | Western Cape Government


Case histories, experience and research internationally and in South Africa have proven that sexual harassment can involve heavy costs, both to companies and to individuals concerned.

Costs to companies

  • Harassment costs companies money by reducing productivity, morale and motivation. If a worker is constantly concerned that the harasser may strike again, she is unlikely to be able to work effectively. At the same time, colleagues who are not involved may be demotivated if they are aware of unacceptable goings-on, or fear possible favouritism.
  • Companies may lose valuable staff. Many women resign rather than go through the unpleasantness of a confrontation. In a division of a company employing many women, where the problem was rife, few women stayed longer than three months. This almost bankrupted the division due to high recruitment and training costs, and poor productivity.
  • The costs of bad decisions related to harassment are difficult to quantify. These include the costs of appointing people because of their looks or compliance with "quid pro quo" demands, rather than skills and competence, the direct costs of perks and unearned increases for favourites, and hotel and travelling costs if women are taken along on business trips or to conferences for personal rather than business reasons. Other examples could relate to giving loans or overdrafts unwisely, or placing orders in the hope of gaining the victim's compliance.
  • High absenteeism among women could also be a result (or a possible symptom) of harassment, as the stress caused by such an unresolved problem, or the fear of being harassed again can either cause illness, or encourage women to stay "safely" at home.
  • The knowledge that harassment is permitted can undermine ethical standards and discipline in the organisation in general, as staff lose respect for, and trust in, their seniors who indulge in, or turn a blind eye to, such behaviour.
  • If word gets around that a company allows sexual harassment to go unchecked, the company's image among its staff, customers and the general public may also suffer.

Legal costs

  • Companies can incur legal costs if the problem is ignored. The Industrial Court in J v M (1989, the first reported case of sexual harassment in South Africa) ruled that "an employer undoubtedly has a duty to ensure that its employees are not subjected to this form of violation in the workplace". Action may be brought against an employer who knows or ought to know about harassment and fails to take appropriate preventive action. Where there are inadequate channels of complaint, an employer may be held liable even if there was no knowledge of the harassment.
  • Whereas sexual harassment was in the past usually dealt with by the Industrial Court as an unfair labour practice, harassment of an employee or prospective employee by an employer or by another employee of the same employer is now expressly prohibited. Because of being declared unlawful, such behaviour may lead to both criminal action and civil claims.
  • If a company has no clear policy on sexual harassment, it may also have problems if it needs to take disciplinary steps against a harasser. Lack of clear definition of unacceptable behaviour would make it easier for a harasser to take the company to court to appeal against disciplinary steps or dismissal. In a case a few years ago a senior manager in a large South African company was dismissed when many years of serious harassment of more than a dozen women came to light. His behaviour had cost the company heavily in terms of productivity losses, the cost of favours, and company image. However, when he appealed to the Industrial Court, the company settled out of court because they feared losing the case, as they had had no specific policy or clear definition of sexual harassment at the time.

Personal costs

  • The victims usually suffer the highest personal costs, although the perpetrators and even observers can also be harmed if harassment is allowed to go uncontrolled.
  • Few people who have not experienced it personally understand the distress and even terror sexual harassment can cause. Most women experience it as an insult, that undermines their self-confidence and thus also their personal effectiveness. It may also undermine their trust in men and in people in authority. In the case of women who were sexually abused as children or as adults, another negative experience can cause serious psychological damage.
  • Women who resign because of sexual harassment problems, often have difficulty getting good references from their previous employers, or giving reasons for having left their previous job; and may thus have difficulty in finding another position. Obviously, this could disrupt such a woman's entire life.
  • Women who resist harassment or complain, may be victimised, for example, overlooked for promotion. Thus this can hold back their career development and personal growth.
  • The harassers themselves could fall into bad habits if their behaviour is allowed to continue. This can negatively influence their effectiveness at work, their interpersonal relationships, their marriage, and their personal development. Particularly in the case of the last two of the types of harassers mentioned above, the serial and the situational harassers, ignoring their behaviour could cause a deep-seated problem to go untreated.
  • Men or women who observe harassment going unchecked may lose trust in their superiors, may feel threatened by the situation if they believe that others are favoured because they play along, or may be tempted to indulge in the same type of behaviour if that appears to be "the rules of the game" in their company.
The content on this page was last updated on 5 September 2013