There is no doubt that the ongoing Harvey Weinstein scandal, in which the disgraced movie mogul has been accused of sexually harassing multiple young actresses, has reignited talk of how prevalent sexual harassment is. Especially in the workplace.

Of course, it’s not just in Hollywood: the subsequent #MeToo social media campaign, which saw survivors of sexual assault talk about their experiences to help create awareness, reconfirmed that sexual assault and harassment at the hands of men in powerful positions is common in all industries across the globe.

The widespread “boy’s club” mentality dominant in most industries is a driving force in normalising this unacceptable and illegal behaviour. Often this prevailing culture makes it incredibly difficult for victims to come forward with their stories.

What constitutes sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment is a form of unfair discrimination based on sex, gender and sometimes even sexual orientation. Any unwelcome and inappropriate physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct is considered sexual harassment. From a legal perspective, this includes, but not limited to, the following misconduct:

  • Physical contact or conduct that is non-consensual. This rages from any form of touching or groping to sexual assault and rape.  Do note: a strip search is not allowed to be conducted by or in the presence of a member of the opposite sex.
  • Innuendos, sexual advances, suggestive comments, ‘flirtatious’ remarks or unsolicited observations about someone else’s body all form part of verbal sexual harassment.
  • Non-verbal instances of sexual harassment in the workplace include inappropriate sexual gestures, indecent exposure and the sending of explicit material (images or videos).
  • Should a senior member of staff or someone who has significant power attempt to influence employment, promotion, training, or dismissal in exchange for sexual favours, this is also sexual harassment.

How to report or deal with sexual harassment in the workplace.

 It’s important to note that, while various channels and HR processes are usually in place at companies, it takes a societal shift- one in which victims are believed and supported- for them to be effective in dealing with and, ultimately, eradication sexual harassment in the workplace.

1. Speak to a supervisor or manager you trust

Approach your supervisor and manager and let them know that you would like to discuss something significant and serious.  Follow up the meeting with a formal letter documenting the incident(s).  It will then be their responsibility to escalate the issue.

2. Set up a meeting with the HR manager

In addition to approaching your supervisor or manager, have a meeting with the company’s HR manager as they will be able to tell you what action you can take.  It’s HR’s job to protect and advise employees on various issues.

3. Raise the issue with senior management

Should the supervisor or manager be dismissive and not take you seriously, gather all your evidence and correspondence and approach senior management.  They should advise you on your options and inform you of what action the company intends to take against the offender.

4. Approach the CCMA

If all internal procedures fail you, lay a claim with the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA), which investigates unjust labour incidents in the workplace.  Again, gather all evidence and include the name of the company and the harasser in question.

5. Seek legal representation and file a lawsuit

Should you get fired for “causing a fuss” or silence you, it is within your legal rights to sue the company.  It’s vitally important that you get a lawyer on your side, which, of course, could turn out to be rather expensive.  Another option is to ensure that you have some kind of legal insurance to not be financially strained.

While this might seem like a clear-cut process, as mentioned before, victims often encounter numerous brick walls when reporting instances of sexual harassment.  Companies need to do their part and not only foster safe working environments, but to believe, support and protect those who come forward.

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