EXPRESSIONS INDUSTRY Opinion

Dealing with Sexual Harassment at the Workplace

Vera is an administrative assistant who joined a company three months ago. Everything was great till she realised some changes in the manner her immediate boss related with her. It started with him looking at her with an intensity which made her quite uncomfortable. Then it went on to very suggestive comments such as,

“You look delicious”

“Your eyes are captivating”

“You have a perfect body”

The comments did not go down well with her but she just smiled and went on with her tasks. Several times, her boss would call her over the phone with urgency in his voice to immediately come to his office. She would then leave her tasks to answer his summons only to be asked to plug in a laptop charger or comment about the boss’ outfit.

Ah! How annoying.

He would then go on to apologise, saying, “Oh! I just wanted to see you because I have missed you”.

One Thursday, she was given a ton of work to do and asked to stay back to finish up before leaving the office, in order to meet a 6 am deadline the next morning. After meeting her deadline, while packing to leave for home, the phone on her desk rang. She picked up to hear her boss’ voice on the other end asking her to come to his office for an important meeting. She wondered what her boss was still doing at the office after 7 pm and reluctantly made her way to his office where she was offered a seat. Her boss then got up and started making strong advances at her. She fought her way out of his office and from that day things have never been the same.

If you were Vera, how would you have dealt with this issue?

Sexual harassment in the workplace is an issue many find uncomfortable to address though it is a common occurrence. It might surprise you who might be harassing who at the workplace.

The Labour Act defines sexual harassment as any unwelcome, offensive or importunate sexual advance or request made by an employer or superior officer or a coworker, whether the worker is a man or woman.

There are no specific laws to protect women from sexual harassment, however Labour Act requires the employer to act against harassment at workplace. If a worker terminates employment contract because his/her employer did not act against sexual harassment at workplace, such termination amounts to unfair dismissal.

The Criminal Code has a provision on indecent assault which includes sexual bodily contact with another person without the consent of the other person or sexual violation of the body of that person in any manner not amounting to carnal knowledge or unnatural carnal knowledge. The indecent assault is a liable offence and on conviction, the perpetrator may have to face an imprisonment term of at least 6 months.

Sources: Section 15, 63 & 175 of the Labour Act 2003; Section 103 of the Criminal Code, 1960 (Act 29)

In dealing with sexual harassment at the workplace, the following measures can be taken;

  • Firmly say NO to the harasser. Talk to the harasser directly. Make him or her aware that their actions are nowhere near welcome. Let the person know that you find their actions inappropriate and offensive. It does not matter whether this person in question is your superior or not. Do not let the fear of being treated harshly after you reject these unwanted advances stop you from stating your objection. Let your No be No. Be firm when you say no to the harasser; do not just say no and at the same time encourage the harasser by flirting back. You can stop the harasser right from when he or she passes unwanted comments else he or she would continue and their actions would move on to become physical. It is better to clearly state your displeasure than to keep quiet and hope the harasser will be sensible enough to notice you do not condone his actions.
  • Report the harasser to senior management. When you confront the harasser and he or she does not stop, report the issue to your immediate supervisor or to human resources. Be sure to document all instances when you felt you were being harassed. This would serve as evidence. You do not have to be shy and afraid of doing this. It is the duty of the human resource manager or the management board to investigate reports or rumours about a sexual harassment occurrence and then be legally responsible for the harassers. Companies must have punitive measures in place to address sexual harassment issues. If there is an instance where management does nothing about the issue and you are still being harassed, go back to management with evidence and more concrete facts about the occurrence. Some companies might have policies that make disciplinary actions confidential and so you are not informed as to what the punishment of the harasser was. One may ask, what if the harasser is the C.E.O of the company? You can report the incident to the human resource manager or your immediate supervisor. Human resources can inform you of the necessary actions to take concerning the sexual harassment incident. You can also seek the advice of an attorney.
  • Talk to other victims and witnesses and record the harassing experience. Talk to colleagues who you are sure can be confided in about the harassment. For all you know, they might have also been harassed by the same person but could not gather the courage to take the issue to the human resource. This would help you gather witnesses when the need arises. Confiding in others about the harassment does not only serve as support, but it is also important because it serves as crucial evidence when the ideal time comes. Seek support from friends and family. Harassment at work is a difficult thing to face alone, and the process of dealing with harassment can be very draining. Keep a record of dates and details of the occurrences. Gather as much evidence as possible because a harasser may try being defensive and can even turn the situation in his or her favour by attacking your work performance. Keep records of your work performance as well.
  • Sue the harasser. You also have the option to take the harasser to court if you feel the issue was not rightfully addressed by your employers. Check your company’s handbook to be sure of the terms stated for sexual harassment. You can speak with a counsellor about your legal rights whether you choose to file a claim or not.

You might have had a relationship with a colleague or superior for a while and you thought it wise to end it. You have asked the person you were involved with to leave you alone but he or she keeps throwing advances at you. You can go ahead and apply the measures stated above. It might be a difficult one but make sure you firmly state your disapproval to his or her actions and avoid flirting back else you will be sending out the wrong signals. You must make sure to address the harasser’s conduct else it does not hold legally as sexual harassment.

Things will not be the same after a harassment happens. Even after the harasser has stopped, you might not be comfortable working in that environment; it might be tough to go about your day to day activities or it can even affect your work performance. When that happens, you would have to talk to a counsellor or seek the support of trusted colleagues, friends and family. Sometimes companies may have the option to transfer or dismiss the harasser depending on the severity of the harassment or when there are diverse effects of the harassment on the harasser and their work performance.

Know your rights in the workplace. Do not let the fear of being punished for reporting a harassment stop you from complaining to the right authorities. Your courage and willingness to stand up against sexual harassment can save the next person from facing the same ordeal.

Article by Francisca Baafi, HR Assistant at KUSI Consulting

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