Sexual harassment in South Africa’s workplace

The #MeToo movement has brought a new awareness to the insidiousness of sexual harassment, encouraging women from around the globe to reveal indignities suffered, often from men in powerful positions.

Closer to home in South Africa, a recent survey from  online and mobile market research agency Columinate² conducted among 1 000 urban South Africans shows that some 30% of South Africa's women and 18% of South African men experience sexual harassment in the workplace. Moreover, 51% of work environments do not have a clear sexual harassment policy.

“The survey shows that although sexual harassment is experienced by both genders, it is women who are predominantly targeted, says Angela Te Roller, Academic Quality Manager of the Diploma in Human Resource Management at Boston City Campus and Business College. “More often than not the incident goes unreported, with women fearing repercussions in their career or feeling that nothing will come of it.”

Sexual Harassment in South Africa

Sexual harassment in the workplace is a global issue where people often abuse their power, infringing on the human rights of the targeted person.  

“South Africa is no exception. Recent cases in our country have brought attention to the power dynamic which is often at play in a sexual harassment situation,” says Te Roller, referring to the current commission of inquiry into sexual harassment allegations at the SABC, where findings revealed that HR  officials and senior manages colluded to cover up reported cases at the national television station.

What can be done to manage sexual harassment?

“Unfortunately SABC is not an isolated incident,” says Te Roller. According to the HR specialist, it is necessary to know what is regarded as sexual harassment. “We need to know the options available to effectively deal with the situation.”

Some of the forms of sexual harassment listed by the Labour Department include:

Unwelcome physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct
All unwanted physical contact, ranging from touching to sexual assault and rape
Unwelcome innuendoes, suggestions and hints, sexual advances, comments with sexual overtones
Unwelcome gestures
Leveraging a position of authority to further an employee’s career in exchange for sexual favours.
Overlooking deserving employees for promotions or salary increases if they do not respond to sexual advances.

Dealing with sexual harassment at work1

“The Labour Relations Code of Good Practice in dealing with Sexual Harassment cases presents a choice of an informal or formal process as the victim’s avenue of recourse,” says Te Roller.

These are as follows:

1. Informal Procedure
The targeted person can choose to explain to the person making the unwanted advances that the behaviour is unwelcome and makes the targeted person uncomfortable.
Email the perpetrator, listing the offensive behaviour.

“It is important to keep a copy of all correspondence and a record of the time and date of any display of unwanted behaviour as this will help your case should you wish to lay charges against the perpetrator,” says Te Roller. “Additionally, if you are speaking to the person making the unwanted advances, be sure to keep the door open and make sure that someone knows where you are during this time.”

2. Formal Procedure
If the targeted person chooses a formal procedure the company needs to take the following steps:
Specify with whom the employee should lodge the grievance.
Establish a time frame to expedite dealing with the grievance.

Impact of sexual harassment
“Sexual harassment has emotional and psychological repercussions,” says Te Roller.  “The victim often feels hopeless and helpless, thinking that there is no solution to the situation.  It is important to support the person who may often feel shame, helping them to understand that sexual assault is not their fault,” says Te Roller who advocates that the sexual harassment needs to be managed and stopped as soon as possible.  There must be consequences, giving perpetrators a clear message that their abuse is unacceptable so that they do not continue their actions.

“We need to challenge gender inequality wherever it arises. Employees need to feel that their workplace is a place of safety where everyone’s needs are equally respected,” says Te Roller who says that companies have a responsibility to create a positive corporate culture, in which the rights and dignities of all staff members are respected.

“Sexual harassment is an important issue to highlight during the 16 days of activism. However, our collective voice can have a far-reaching effect beyond this time.  Let’s stand together and change the 16 days of no violence against women and children to a definitive never,” concludes the team member from the Boston Human Resource Diploma Department.