Being sexual harassed in the workplace can be a lonely, scary experience.

In wake of the ANC’s Pule Mabe returning to work after the sexual harassment grievance against him, and the strongly worded response from his former PA, Kgoerano Kekana, we delve further into this sensitive topic.

What is sexual harassment?

In the broadest sense, sexual harassment in the workplace – governed by South Africa’s Labour Relations Act – is unwelcome attention of a sexual nature that happens at a place of work.

This includes a wide range of sexual behaviours that can make a person feel uncomfortable, such as:

  • Unsolicited physical contact
  • Verbal forms such as suggestive, unwelcome sexual jokes, unwanted questions about your sex life, or whistling, and requests for sex, and;
  • Non-verbal forms such as rude gestures, indecent exposure, and the unwelcome display of sexually explicit pictures, and staring at your body in a distasteful way.

Both men and women can fall prey to such behaviours, but it happens more to women. “Some 30% of women and 18% of men reported having been victims of unwanted sexual advances in the workplace,” says insights agency Columinate, after conducting research with 1 000 participants in South Africa.

What can you do if it is happening to you?

“It is up to all the employers to ensure that there are rules against sexual harassment in their organisations,” writes Gender Links’ alliance intern Sandiswa Manana on the organisation’s website.

“This will help in cases [where] sexual harassment is reported, the superiors will not say their hands are tied, but rather be able to sort the issue.”

As difficult as it is, it starts with speaking up. According to the Labour Guide website, this can be done in two ways:

Informal action means the affected person should let the perpetrator know that what they are doing is not welcome nor appropriate.

Communicating this can take several forms such as talking to the harasser, you may even take someone with you or write a formal letter and keeping a copy for yourself. Alternatively, you could ask a colleague to speak to the abuser.

If this does not rectify the situation then the other route is to take formal action.

The means that a formal procedure should be made available and include:

  • Specify to whom the employee should lodge the grievance,
  • Refer to timeframes which allow the grievance to be dealt with expeditiously, and;
  • Provide that if the case is not resolved satisfactorily, the issue can be dealt with in terms of the dispute procedures contained in item 7(7) of the labour code.

READ: Pule Mabe’s former PA hits back at sexual harassment complaint outcomes

During any investigation, care should be taken that the aggrieved is not in any way disadvantaged.

“Sexual harassment is not an issue that should be swept under the carpet if reported,” writes Manana.

“In fact, the employers should not make a woman or any person who has reported the case feel like it was their fault that they found themselves harassed sexually. There is no need for a woman to stop wearing what she is comfortable in for a perpetrator to stop their ungovernable behaviour.”

The victim also has the right to press criminal or civil charges against the perpetrator.

It’s about policy and education

The Columinate study shows that more than one-half of workplaces – 51% – do not have a clear sexual harassment policy in place, and a mere 37% of organisations have a clear process to report sexual harassment.

“The results are somewhat dismaying, and it’s evident that South African corporations need to improve their harassment policies and procedures to ensure businesses adequately protect their employees,” reads the report.

Besides having a clear policy, employees need to be educated about it, and more support is needed to people who come forth.

“The code of conducts against sexual harassment should be outlined to the employees,” writes Gender Link’s Manana.

“Every person within a place of work who has harassed another person sexually should be dealt with accordingly. Law is law, and it should not favour anyone because of their race, class and status in the workplace or anywhere in society.”

Sources: Gender Links, and Labour Guide

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