SEXUAL HARASSMENT IN THE WORKPLACE

The most effective approach against sexual harassment in the workplace is prevention. Research indicates that when sexual harassment is not addressed, it does not go away but worsens and is difficult to resolve.

Every organisation should have a sexual harassment policy in place. Sexual harassment is defined in South African legislation as “unwanted conduct of a sexual nature”. It is quite tricky to define behaviour that may be considered offensive. A male employee who complimented a female co-worker on her outfit was accused of sexual harassment as was a female employee with a picture of young ladies wearing bikinis as a computer screen saver. A client walked past her office and complained. An assistant overhearing her manager talking to his girlfriend was offended when he said, “or notesjust wait until I get hold of you tonight”.

Generally, though sexual harassment is any unwelcome, physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct. For example:
Sending suggestive emails.
Sharing inappropriate sexual images, such as pornography.
Making inappropriate sexual gestures.
Making sexual comments about clothing, appearance or body parts.
Unwanted physical contact like touching, patting, pinching or rubbing (a strip search by a member of the opposite sex).
Asking sexual questions or making offensive comments about a co-worker’s sexual orientation or sexual history.
Influencing promotion, employment, training, dismissal or any other benefit in the workplace in exchange for sexual favours.

GUIDELINES FOR A SEXUAL HARASSMENT POLICY

Adopt a zero tolerance approach to sexual harassment in the workplace.

Allow employees subjected to sexual harassment to lodge a grievance and commit to immediate handling of alleged cases of sexual harassment.

Be sure to mention that as serious as the organisation is about sexual harassment which may lead to dismissal, it is equally unacceptable to make false claims of sexual harassment and these unsubstantiated accusations may also result in an employee’s dismissal.

Clarify and define that sexual harassment includes conduct committed against male and female employees and by employees of the same and opposite sex irrespective of sexual orientation – as well as by clients, visitors to the company and other people not employed by the organisation.

Define inappropriate behaviour in as much detail as possible (include verbal and non-verbal gestures, visual displays, physical and psychological behaviour, sexual favouritism, etc).

Also refer to behaviour that may not suggest sexual harassment. For example, random, occasional jokes or compliments
set out a grievance procedure to address sexual harassment allegations. It is suggested that one contact person, such as an HR employee or an employee involved in the organisation’s employee assistance programme, be allocated as the initial contact
confidentiality must be respected at all times.

Organisations may want to consider granting additional sick leave in cases of serious sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment is a violation of fundamental human rights and employees have the right to human dignity, equality, privacy and fair labour practices. Sexual harassment compromises the basic integrity of an employment relationship.

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