Business has a responsibility to deal with GBV and harassment in the workplace…
Media attention regarding gender-based violence, including unwanted sexual advances from a number of high-profile individuals in their work environments, has culminated in an all-out war on GBV in South Africa.
The #MeToo movement, a social movement against sexual harassment and sexual assault, followed by the horrendous violence South Africa has witnessed in recent days, have led to more attention the world over on the abuse of women. Businesses need to pay attention to this in the workplace too, in the form of sexual harassment.
With our own horrific history of violence against women, South Africa can well do with a focus on how we deal with cases of sexual violence, including sexual harassment in the workplace. Legislation makes provision for this – in the Employment Equity Act, read with the Code of Good Practice in the Handling of Sexual Harassment Cases in the Workplace.
The legislation is there, but the enforcement may not be
“Unfortunately, while we have some reasonably good legislation in place regarding workplace sexual harassment, the enforcement of the legislation has not been good enough,” says Deepa Vallabh, Director – Corporate and Commercial at CMS/RM Partners South Africa, an African commercial law firm and member of a top 5 global law firm.
According to Vallabh, “Just one occurrence of any unsolicited conduct of a sexual nature that is directed at an employee constitutes possible sexual harassment.
“It does not have to be repeated, nor does it have to be totally overt conduct, to fall within the definition. Employers should include this sort of explanation in their HR policies and in education and cultural compliance for all staff.”
Businesses must create an environment in which women feel safe to come forward
Vallabh strongly believes that the issue of poor enforcement lies both with the organs of the State, such as the police and prosecution services, as well as with the private sector.
“Too often, company executives, management and Human Resources (HR) managers do not respond suitably to an allegation by a staff member of sexual harassment,” she explains. In many instances, corporates have not created environments that allow these allegations to surface or to safely allow women to come forward when victimised in this manner.
Support is critical
Where an employee makes a complaint regarding sexual harassment, the employee may face significant psychological damage if they feel that they are not being supported. Obviously, this situation may impact negatively on a person’s productivity.
Equally significant is that the employer could face legal action for its failure to act, and there could be a reputational risk to the employer, especially if the matter were to reach the media’s attention.
Recent media reports have highlighted both the appalling manner in which certain corporates have responded to such allegations and the reputational damage that ensued thereafter.
Women play an important role in the economy and should feel safe in the workplace
In a society seeking to redress the imbalances of the past, South African employers are encouraged to provide opportunities for women to participate more meaningfully in the economy.
“To achieve this, however,” explains Vallabh, “women need to feel comfortable and secure in the workplace. In an environment where sexual harassment is tolerated, how does one achieve empowerment for women? The two are linked and therefore one cannot speak of meaningful upliftment and empowerment of women yet ignore what is required to create environments where sexual harassment is not tolerated.”
Consequences of harassment must be harsh
Vallabh believes that both legislation and enforcement need to be strengthened which will potentially bring these issues within the fold of better governance structures within organisations.
“Companies have an obligation to treat this issue seriously, and every person inside a business with a responsibility to act must be held to account. Failure to carry out this responsibility should result in sanction by the employer, be it through the dismissal of senior staff who turned a blind eye, or through the issuing of warnings. In addition, anyone guilty of sexual conduct at a firm should never be permitted to serve as a director of a company or hold a senior management executive position.”
It is unthinkable that, in today’s world, corporates and other businesses can allow practices such as sexual harassment to continue.
Hopefully, the sentiment represented by the #MeToo movement will have the desired impact on the South African business environment and we will begin to see sexual harassment in the workplace being treated as a serious problem that should not be tolerated.