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Are you being sexually harassed at work? Here is how you can handle the situation

By Faeza
14 March 2017

SEXUAL harassment is unfortunately a common occurrence in the workplace. With the job market in South Africa becoming tougher than ever before, many sexually harassed victims are scared to report the abuse or leave their jobs.


Naledi Khumalo* is a graduate straight out of university and she started with her internship three months ago. Within two weeks of her internship, Naledi has had to change the way she dresses. She now wears longsleeve shirts to work even if it's very hot. This is because she has been getting sexual remarks from her supervisor about her appearance. The supervisor has expressed how badly he would like to be stuck alone in the lift with her.


According to Dr Ruby-Ann Levendal, director of Transformation (Monitoring and Evaluation) at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, sexual harassment is

unwelcome or unwanted behaviour of a sexual nature by a colleague – same gender or opposite gender – which may be obvious or subtle.” She adds that the behaviour

usually causes the other person to feel offended. Depending on the extent of the behaviour, this can also cause distress in the person, which can lead to the emotional, physical

and social discomfort or interfere with the person’s work performance.


“There are various types of sexual harassment that can take place in the workplace. It may take the form of special victimisation like harassment and the creation of a hostile environment,” explains Dr Levendal. “Special victimisation involves any form of victimisation, discrimination or intimidation of a person for failing to submit to sexual advances. Sexual harassment involves the alleged perpetrator influencing or attempting to influence a person’s employment circumstances training, funding opportunities, grading or evaluation) by coercing or attempting to coerce that person to engage in sexual activities. Creation of a hostile environment occurs where the purpose or effect is to

interfere with another’s performance at work,” she says.


Dr Levendal explains that sometimes this situation also creates an intimidating, hostile or defensive working environment which can be very stressful for the person to operate in.

“It's important that the person tells the individual who is behaving in an offensive manner that they are not comfortable with their conduct and they should stop. Say no!” she advises. “It's important that they communicate this upfront, and if they can, get it in writing so that they have evidence that they have told the person to stop if he or she continues. If they are not comfortable to say these themselves, perhaps they should ask a colleague to do so on their behalf.”


“This will depend on whatever policy exists at the workplace. If there is no policy, the person can approach their union. If no union is present in the workplace, then approach the HR manager. If it's a domestic worker, then they can go to their nearest SAPS office,” says Dr Levendal.


The procedure of how a company deals with sexual harassment might vary. “Depending on your policy, there will be an investigation and evidence will have to be provided, witnesses (if any) would be needed to support the sexual harassment allegations,” Dr Levendal explains.


Dr Levendal says the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University has set a good example of how sexual harassment issues can be dealt with. “The university conducts sexual harassment awareness training with staff and students to increase their awareness

of what constitutes sexual harassment and how they can report it. It's usually very traumatic for the person who has submitted a complaint and it can affect their concentration and productivity at work,” she explains.


She says people should be encouraged to speak out about this issue and not tolerate unacceptable behaviour. “Some people justify such type of behaviour as culturally

acceptable, but this cannot justify treating other human beings as objects,” she says, adding that “sexual harassment is not about sex but rather control” .

* Not her real name