The cost of sexual harrasment

2010-04-26 00:00

SEXUAL harassment is a continuing and extreme problem in the workplace. The problem is not unique to South Africa, but it exists throughout the world and across all cultures. As such, it is critically important to understand what employees, at every level, should and should not do, when interacting with each other, customers, vendors or other non-employees. Sexual harassment has been defined as a range of behaviour, with physical sexual assault at one extreme and nonverbal, sexually suggestive behaviour and innuendo at the other extreme. It occurs when a person’s sex and gender overshadow his or her identity as an employee. Given this broad definition, it is not surprising that sexual harassment comes in many forms.

Sometimes it is easy to recognise. A situation in which a supervisor suggests to an employee that he or she must sleep with him or her to keep a job (known as quid pro quo harassment) can easily be identified as sexual harassment. Likewise, the situation where a worker pinches and fondles a co-worker against that person’s will. But what about a situation where a group of employees tell sexually explicit jokes in the canteen? What if an employee’s manager compliments him or her on their hair, make-up and clothes to the point that they become embarrassed and uncomfortable? How about a boss lowering his or her belt slightly to show their assistant their appendix scar?

It is to be expected that there will be vastly different ideas as to what constitutes acceptable conduct and what oversteps the line. If employees complain to their bosses that certain conduct is making them uncomfortable, employers will have to make the call as to whether to discipline those responsible, or whether to advise the complainant to take it with a pinch of salt. Ultimately however, the courts have the power to examine the employer’s judgment carefully and can

order employers to pay punitive damages if they were unreasonably insensitive to the plight of the complainant.

There is another reason for employers to be vigilant regarding sexual harassment. Research has shown that large numbers of people do not report sexual harassment for a wide range of reasons — the belief that nothing will be done, fear of ostracism, fear of further harassment or ridicule, concern that colleagues will gossip and not wanting to be labelled a troublemaker.

Although the extent of under-reporting is difficult to gauge, some research indicates levels of betweeen 80% and 90% underreporting. This is why the problem should matter to an employer, even if only at the basest level of economics. Employees who are the victims of sexual harassment, racial harassment or any other form of workplace bullying are much less productive and are more frequently absent that those in a workplace which respects a person’s dignity. Employee turnover is also much higher, which in itself has a huge economic cost.

Employers should take sexual harassment seriously. It can cost them dearly if they don’t.

A code of good practice on handling sexual harassment cases can be found on the Department of Labour’s website.

• Shadia Alli is a lecturer in the law faculty and is the law librarian.

The Pietermaritzburg campus of the Law Faculty of the University of KwaZulu-Natal is celebrating its centenary this year.

As part of its centenary celebrations, legal academics from the Pietermaritzburg campus will be publishing a series of articles on current legal developments, and other interesting topics in The Witness. The series will run over the course of a year. The articles will appear fortnightly.

The intention of the series is to provide useful and stimulating information to Witness readers, and also to provide a link between the law faculty and the broader community. The topics to be dealt with are wide ranging and will cover the spectrum from constitutional law to employment law and criminal law; and beyond. There will also be comment on developments in the legal profession, the criminal justice system and within the Department of Justice itself.

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