Dealing with sexual harassment in the workplace

Your well-being should be a top priority, even at work. (Shutterstock)

If you feel uncomfortable after an interaction with another in your workplace, you can deal with it in a formal or informal way.

Simply put, any form of unwanted sexual attention that takes place in the workplace and makes you feel uncomfortable is considered sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment comes in many forms, including:

• Touching
• Unwelcome sexual jokes
• Unwanted questions about your sex life
• Whistling
• Rude gestures
• Requests for sex
• Staring at your body in an offensive way

No one is exempt from harassment or from perpetrating harassment either. 

You can be a victim or perpetrator of sexual harassment if you’re:

• An owner
• An employer
• A manager
• A supervisor
• An employee
• A job applicant
• A client
• A supplier
• A contractor
• Anyone who has dealings with a business

Also, even if you’re not employed by the company where the harassment took place but your harasser is, you still have the right to lodge a complaint at that company to complain about their employee’s actions. 

Read: Can you end your contract early?

If you have ever found yourself feeling uncomfortable after an interaction with another in the workplace, you can deal with it in a formal or informal way.

Confronting your harasser

Formal Option

If you do decide to approach your employer, be aware that there is usually a formal procedure that has to be followed as the company attempts to resolve the grievance. Your HR manager or supervisor should explain the next steps to you. 

Your company:
• must tell you who the right person to complain to is, 
• must set a timeline in which the grievance will be dealt with
• must inform you what you should do if the case isn’t resolved satisfactorily. In other words, they have to explain the ins and outs of disputing the ruling. 
• enable you (as well as the harasser) to take the matter to the CCMA. If it then still remains unresolved, you are able to take the case to the Labour Court.

You are entitled to complete confidentiality.  No one involved in the investigation may reveal the identities of the accuser or accused. Even in the disciplinary meeting, only a select few may be present:

• appropriate members of management 
• the aggrieved person, 
• his or her representative, 
• alleged perpetrator, 
• witnesses 
• an interpreter (if required)

You are eligible for sick leave if a medical practitioner ruled that you require trauma counselling. Even if your sick leave is exhausted, according to the CCMA your company must “give due consideration to the granting of additional sick leave in cases of serious sexual harassment”.

If you choose not to lay a complaint against your aggressor by your employer, but still want to resolve the issue, you may take informal action

Informal Option 1

Talk to the harasser
Confront them, somewhere safe, and let them know that what they do makes you uncomfortable.

Ask someone to come along
You can ask someone trustworthy to accompany you during the confrontation.

Informal Option 2

Write a letter
You can also write a letter that explains that their behaviour makes you feel uncomfortable. Be very specific about what the harasser does to make you feel this way. Also include a clear request that he or she stops the behaviour immediately.

Make a copy of the letter
Before you hand the letter over, ensure that you have a copy of the letter too.

Post the letter
It is important that you are able, in case you need it for future reference, to prove that the harasser received the letter.

Informal Option 3

Ask someone else to speak to the harasser
You can ask another colleague or union representative to address the issue with the harasser on your behalf.

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Can you go to the police?

Yes. Whether or not you lay a formal complaint at work, you can press criminal and/or civil charges against your harasser at your nearest police station.

Always remember your rights to:

• a workplace that is free from sexual harassment.
• be treated with dignity and respect at work.
• be treated equally, and not to be discriminated against because of race, gender or your HIV status.
• report sexual harassment without fear of victimisation (ill-treatment).
• have your complaint treated seriously and confidentially.