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How #MeToo Is Still Making An Impact

The prominence of the #MeToo movement in the media has thrown a very bright spotlight on inappropriate workplace conduct. The public outcry has forced companies to take a closer look at sexual harassment in the workplace. While all South African companies should have a sexual harassment policy in place as per the Employment Equity Act (by way of the Code of Good Practice), there are many instances of sexual harassment that fly under the HR radar.

woman in office on a chair

What Is Sexual Harassment?

The abovementioned Code of Good Practice defines sexual harassment as any unwanted conduct of a sexual nature. The “unwanted” nature of sexual harassment is what separates it from harmless office banter. If a person expresses that they are made uncomfortable by overtly sexual conduct from their co-workers, but that conduct persists, then said individual should take the matter to their company’s human resources department.
In the words of the Code of Good Practice:
“Sexual attention becomes sexual harassment if: (a) The behaviour is persisted in, although a single incident of harassment can constitute sexual harassment; and/or(b) The recipient has made it clear that the behaviour is considered offensive; and/or(c) The perpetrator should have known that the behaviour is regarded as unacceptable.”
The Code of Good Practice describes some forms of sexual harassment, which can fall into the following categories:

  • Physical: all unwanted physical contact, including touching, sexual assault/rape, or a strip search by or in the presence of someone of the opposite sex.
  • Verbal: these can include innuendo, sexual advances, inappropriate inquiries into a person’s sex life, or sex-related jokes or insults.
  • Non-verbal: apart from unwelcome physical contact, non-verbal harassment can include inappropriate gestures, indecent exposure, or the unwelcome display of sexually explicit pictures or objects.
  • Quid pro quo: this form of harassment occurs when a colleague in a more senior role undertakes or attempts to influence the process of employment, promotion, training, or salary increases of an employee or job applicant in exchange for sexual favours.

Similar to quid pro quo harassment is sexual favouritism, which occurs when a person in a position of authority rewards only those who respond to his/her sexual advances. The result of refusing these advances is that more deserving employees are passed over for promotions or salary increases.

What Does The Law Say About Sexual Harassment?

While office bullying is nothing new, sexual harassment is an equally insidious feature of a poor workplace culture that is often played off as a joke. This is why the human resources department in your company must be easy to approach, while remaining impartial. Having a legal adviser on hand in these matters can be very helpful too, so that employees are well aware of their rights and the HR specialists can learn how to best handle these situations.

If you are experiencing sexual harassment in your place of work, here are some legislative references you can speak with your HR department about in order to finger out your next steps:

  • The Protection from Harassment Act (Act 17 of 2011): Part of this act elaborates on types of harassment and stalking behaviours that violate an individual’s right to privacy and dignity.
  • The Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Related Matters) Amendment: This legislation ensures that complainants of sexual offences are protected, while also seeking to (by way of the relevant legal courses) combat and ultimately eradicate the high incidences of sexual offenses committed in SA.
  • The Labour Relations Act: This is the main act that addresses sexual harassment in the workplace. It’s Code of Good Practice is the backbone of the typical sexual harassment policy for businesses and provides guidance on how to deal with such complaints.
  • The Employment Equity Act (Act 55 of 1998): This foundational piece of legislation provides protective mechanisms for employees. Section 6 of this act states that no person may unfairly discriminate against another on the grounds of gender, or any other arbitrary ground.

What Can You Do About Sexual Harassment In The Workplace?

If you are part of your company’s HR department, consider taking the following steps to make sure your office culture supports your colleagues’ productivity and work ethic by making them feel safe at the office:

  • Clear policy from management: All employees should have access to and be aware of your company’s policy on sexual harassment.
  • Complaints and disciplinary procedure: Make sure all employees know how to report an instance of sexual harassment or other forms of workplace bullying.
  • Raising awareness in the workplace: Educate your co-workers on what constitutes sexual harassment by way of a workshop.
  • Confidentiality: Ensure that complainants feel safe in sharing their stories. Most victims stay quiet out of fear that reporting their harasser could result in more extreme bullying tactics or that the complainant could lose their position in the company.

However, the responsibility for tackling the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace cannot be held by HR alone. If #MeToo has taught us anything, it’s that colleagues need to look out for each other in the office. If you are aware of instances of sexual harassment in your workplace, you can make a difference by:

  • Reporting these incidents to the attention of management or your human resources department,
  • Pressure company management to formulate and implement appropriate policies,
  • Helping victims deal with the consequences of this harassment.

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