The recent #MeToo social media campaign saw people from across the globe share their personal stories of sexual harassment and assault.
The campaign came on the back of the tidal wave of assault allegations made against Hollywood movie mogul Harvey Weinstein (to date, over 50 women have claimed harassment and at least six have alleged sexual assault).
Within a South African context, this is highly relevant, as our country has one of the highest incidences of rape in the world.
In the spirit of breaking this culture of silence around sexual abuse, if you’re a victim of harassment or assault in the workplace, what should you do?
Here’s a suggested road map to follow:
1. Speak up to the offender
If you’re in a hostile work environment, the person you accuse may claim that they didn’t even realise they were being offensive. For this reason, you should first let them know that they are being offensive, as an attempt to avoid further tension. Of course, if you feel intimidated not to do this for any reason, this is understandable too. If this is the case, or if confronting them doesn’t work, you should move to step 2 below.
2. Report the offender
South Africa’s Employment Equity Act says that if an employer fails to take the necessary steps to deal with allegations of sexual harassment, they have contravened the EEA. In other words, the onus is on them first to try and resolve the situation.
Check and see whether your company has a formal procedure for handling sexual harassment cases. If they do, make sure you follow it exactly, such as reporting it to the right people, or documenting exactly what is and/or has happened. Start by reporting the issue to your immediate supervisor and to your HR department. If necessary, escalate it to senior management.
3. Document everything
No matter what kind of work environment you’re in, and whether there’s a formal procedure for reporting sexual harassment or not, you should document the harassment in detail. Keep notes of all relevant details including times, dates, people involved and descriptions of the incidents. This also includes harassment offered ‘quid pro quo‘, which is where you’re offered something such as a job or promotion in return for the harassment – or on the other hand that you’ll be demoted or fired if you don’t. Make sure you also document any of these threats made.
4. Contact the CCMA
If the issue isn’t resolved by reporting it at work, you can file a sexual harassment charge with the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) as an unfair labour incident. You’ll need to provide details including your employer’s name, the offender’s name, and specific details of the incident.
5. Seek legal advice
Under the Employment Equity Act, harassment of a worker is a form of unfair discrimination. For this reason, victims of sexual harassment may take civil action and criminal prosecution against the offender. So, as well as filing a complaint with the CCMA, you may also decide to take legal action against them. As a starting point, find a good attorney with specific experience in dealing with sexual harassment in the workplace. In many cases it’s your word against the harasser’s, so it’s worth the expense of doing this.
6. Consider leaving
While this is a very personal decision, and even if you are pursuing legal action, you may decide that it’s less stressful to leave the company where you are working, particularly if the harasser hasn’t been dismissed or if the legal matter is ongoing. While you shouldn’t feel bullied to leave a job for this reason, you shouldn’t feel like you have to stay either.
Reporting and dealing with sexual harassment in the workplace can be intimidating, but the risk of doing nothing is that the situation gets worse.
Remember that as well as resolving the situation for yourself, taking action means you’ll potentially save other people in your company from the same treatment by the harasser
By seeking support from people such as your manager, HR department or legal representative, you can make sure that your voice is heard and that action is taken. And, if you belong to certain medical aids like Fedhealth, you may be eligible for extra support such as trauma counselling immediately following the incident.
Remember that as well as resolving the situation for yourself, taking action means you’ll potentially save other people in your company from the same treatment by the harasser.