You want me to do WHAT?

You want me to do WHAT?

What do Rolf Harris, Bill Cosby and Bob Hewitt have in common? They have all been accused of sexual harassment. Alas, this peril is not limited to the celebrity world. It’s alive and well in the workplace too. CHARLEEN CLARKE delves deeper …

Kirsten* was 24 years old when she landed the job of her dreams. It came with a directorship, a hefty salary and even a brand-new red BMW. It almost sounded too good to be true.

Sadly it was. The princely package also came with a sleazy boss called Doug*. Initially he was just nice, then he started visiting her at home. Eventually, on business trips, he insisted that she share a hotel room with him. Ultimately he demanded sex.

Kirsten worked for Doug for five weeks. Those were the five worst weeks of her life. She never gave into his demands for sex, and so he fired her. The case went to court. Of course she won, but her legal victory did not ease the pain that he had caused her.

Tania* has also been subject to sexual harassment in the workplace.

As a telecommunications technician in Durban, she works in a male-dominated environment.

“My executive manager came to the office and asked for my number and I gave it to him. I did not ask him why he wanted it, as he is a senior person and respected by all in the company because of his position. He then started touching my breasts and private parts.

“I started feeling very uncomfortable and stopped him. I then walked out of the office and told him that I was going to report this to my supervisor. I felt violated and scared. Even though I said I was going to report this, I felt I could not because I thought I could easily lose my job if I did,” she recalls.

These tales – while sad – are not unusual. According to the United Nations, between 40 and 50 percent of women in European Union (EU) countries experience unwanted sexual advances, physical contact or other forms of sexual harassment at their workplace.

In Asia and the Pacific region, studies indicate that 30 to 40 percent of women workers report some form of verbal, physical or sexual harassment. In Australia, according to the country’s Human Rights Commission, 25 percent of women have been sexually harassed in the workplace.

According to Renate van Oosten, a recent graduate from University College London, statistics pertaining to sexual harassment vary enormously, as it is still one of the most underreported crimes.

“It is thought that anywhere between 30 to 50 percent of women are victims of sexual harassment in the EU, as well as one in two in the United Kingdom, one in four in workplaces in the United States (US) and 34 to 78 percent in the US military,” she reports, in a paper entitled: Sexual Harassment in the Workplace.

Given the violent nature of life in South Africa, it comes as no surprise to learn that sexual harassment in this country is alive and well. In fact, in a recent Gender Links study in this country, 77 percent of female respondents reported that they had experienced sexual harassment at some time during their working lives.

Of course, this phenomenon is not limited to women. “Sexual harassment and other forms of harassment and abuse – physical, verbal or psychological – bullying, mobbing, work-related stress and violence affect all professions and sectors and both women and men,” says Jane Hodges, director of the Bureau for Gender Equality, at the International Labour Organisation.

As in Tania’s case, a major problem is that many women do not report harassment for fear of losing their jobs. The cost for workers, says Hodges, is heightened stress, loss of motivation and increased risk of accidents at work. “Workplace violence and harassment present a significant barrier to women accessing and progressing through the labour market. It erodes decent working conditions,” she notes.

According to Lisa Vetten, an independent gender policy expert, it is apparent that South Africa has developed a notorious reputation for sexual crimes. “It is certainly true that many cases are kept secret, but the reasons are complicated. Sexual harassment in the workplace is often trivialised.

“There is a lot of confusion around ‘resisting sexual harassment’ and ‘lacking a sense of humour’, for example. Women also sometimes feel they will be accused of making something out of nothing, and so they keep quiet. In our experience, situations like these occur more often than you would expect,” she comments.

The consequences of disregarding sexual harassment can be dire, because it can lead to absenteeism, increased turnover and lower job performance and productivity. According to B&A, a local training and consulting company, if an employer fails to address a sexual harassment complaint, the consequences may be serious. In Grobler versus Naspers Bpk [2004], a manager was found guilty of sexually harassing an employee.

The court found the employer to be vicariously liable for the conduct of the manager, because it had failed to take appropriate action to prevent the harassment. According to B&A, the employer was liable for the resultant damages of just short of R1 million.

So what should an employee do if subjected to sexual harassment?

The first step would be for the employee to speak to the person who is harassing him or her. Tell them to stop. A civil and factual letter, detailing the harassment and calling on it to stop, is another option. This is not a bad idea, given that the facts will then be on record.

Speaking of records, it is vitally important to keep accurate notes pertaining to the harassment – including dates, venues and exact times. Assuming that the harassment does not stop, an employee should approach his or her manager for assistance.

According to B&A, the Labour Relations Act (LRA) also provides employees with valuable assistance. “The LRA addresses the problem in the Code of Good Practice. An employee has the right to respect and dignity in the workplace. If these rights are undermined because of sexual harassment, an employee can lay a complaint with the human resources department against the harasser.

“Situations like these can be dealt with formally or informally. Informal action usually includes the targeted employee taking the situation into his or her own hands and addressing the harasser personally. In other cases, a formal grievance enquiry can be held,” a spokesman for B&A explains.

If the victim of sexual harassment is not satisfied with an outcome after a formal grievance was held, he or she can refer the case to the Commission for Conciliation Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA), in accordance with the provisions of section 135 of the Act.

Should the dispute remain unresolved, either party may refer the dispute to the Labour Court, within 30 days of receipt of the certificate issued by the commissioner in terms of section 135(5).

In cases of persistent harassment or a single incident of serious misconduct, employers ought to follow the procedures set out in the Code of Practice contained in Schedule 8 of this Act. If a harasser is substantially found guilty of the allegations after a disciplinary enquiry was held, the harasser can be summary dismissed.

A victim of sexual harassment can also press criminal and/or civil charges against the harasser.

Companies also have certain duties and obligations when it comes to sexual harassment. According to Dale Horne, director of Whistle Blowers, businesses need to have social and ethics policies and committees in place (in terms of the Companies Act of 2008). For some of the biggest corporates, ethics are integral to their brand identities and specific policies directly address the issue of sexual harassment.

“It is evident that companies are now being more proactive in this arena. Some of this has to do with the fact that company owners and managers are more educated about the provisions and risks.

“A whistle blowing call centre – which listed companies are mandated to put in place to deal with fraud – is an effective means of dealing with other irregularities too. It is actually an inexpensive service that provides much-needed eyes and ears in an organisation,” he says.

Horne says that, because handling complaints as empathetically as possible and protecting the identity of those who report problems via the call centre are priorities, this is an ideal way to deal with many of the sensitivities surrounding sexual harassment.

A case in point was a recent report that reached the Whistle Blowers call centre from a supplier to a large company. “She didn’t know who to turn to. She couldn’t tell her husband as she feared that he would get very angry. She was also concerned that the person she accused would know it was her and she would then lose any future work from that company.

“Having someone to confide in gave her a sense of release. Ultimately, we found that this was this guy’s modus operandi and that he had done something similar to others,” Horne tells SHEQ MANAGEMENT.

An even more sensitive case, which was successfully handled by Whistle Blowers, brought some respite for a young man, who was harassed and forced into a sexual relationship by a female superior and eventually cracked under the strain.

So there you have it. There are many options open to victims and employers alike – and doing nothing is not one of them.

* Names changed

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SHEQ Management

SHEQ MANAGEMENT is the definitive source for reliable, accurate and pertinent information to guarantee environmental health and safety in the workplace.
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