South Africa: Sexual harassment in the workplace – Advice from a local firm to members of the corporate world

Prepared by:  Esther Ooko, Beat Sexism South Africa

Sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace appear to be a never-ending hurdle some women have to face and fight during the course of their careers. But the failure of employers and HR departments in various companies to deal efficiently with reports of sexual harassment have encouraged South African courts to adopt a zero tolerance on the matter. In light of the “Me Too” movement that has taken the world by storm, local South African firm and the largest law in Africa, ENS, shares some advice to corporate South Africa of the ways of dealing with sexual harassment claims in the workplace and the courts take on such matters.

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Sexual harassment and unfair dismissals almost always go hand in hand. Nerish Singh was a former director at an accounting firm known as Grant Thornton. She had called out an instance of sexual harassment present in the high echelons. This was followed by the termination of her employment contract as she had laid the sexual harassment claim against the company head of forensics. This is a common example of why plenty of women refrain from reporting against their occupational seniors. Sexual harassment in the workplace tends to be an abuse of power for this very reason. How often do you hear of an intern sexual harassing a director? Not saying it isn’t possible, but the majority of the cases tend to be a power play act.

The firm highlighted the reality of the conduct of some HR departments. If subject A is harassed at “B Inc”, she may seek help from the HR department located in “B Inc”. The issue with this is that often times they are complicit or bullied themselves by the higher-ups of the company. Management is sometimes noted to have very weak emotional intelligence and a tendency to sweep matters of this kind under the rug. This may lead women to push through their ordeal for there is lack of proper assistance.

Local labor lawyers advise alleged victims to seek externally experienced people like a
lawyer or a psychologist. These individuals may be able to provide with you expert
assistance with regards to your issue as opposed to HR departments. In addition to
that, seeking external assistance will lessen chances for conflicts of interest faced with
HR departments.

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South African courts are not going easy on cases of sexual harassment. The courts are
actively recognizing the reality of prejudice present in the workplace. The courts support
the need for the eradication of patriarchy from the workplace. This should assure
women in the community to bring forth their case of sexual harassment, for the law is
now skewed in favor of women but in favor of creating a just and equal society.

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