Why has the risk of sexual harassment increased in the workplace?

International research points to an alarming consequence of spiralling economic conditions: an increase in sexual harassment in the workplace.

Not surprisingly, during such tough financial times sexual-harassment victims worry about job security, resulting in severe underreporting.

In the wake of South Africa’s two recent ratings downgrades to junk status and the prospect of a recession in the future, the country faces a real risk of increased workplace abuses of this nature. Anticipating this, employers and HR departments need to take action to limit the effect that this extremely damaging behaviour has on their employees, organisations and reputations.

Though South Africa has stringent employment legislation to protect workers from unfair labour practices, such incidents have the potential to cause immense damage. As such, employers should adopt a pre-emptive rather than reactive approach. Companies and their HR departments need to educate staff around this prevalent issue, protect employees from falling victim to such behaviour, empower victims by explaining their rights and create safe spaces for such victims.

The difference between officially reported figures of sexual harassment and the reality in workplaces is staggering: about half of women and 10-20% of men are sexually harassed at work whereas only 6% of those who face harassment actually lodge a complaint. No doubt a lot fewer go on to file a legal charge.

With the economy under strain, these already-shocking trends are likely to worsen. One of the reasons sexual harassment spikes during tough economic times is that such downturns threaten gender identities. While some cases fall outside of the usual narrative, in general, challenges to a harasser’s status as the prototypical male results in them dominating others to compensate for their own insecurities.

The detrimental effects of sexual harassment do not end at the victims of such abuses. Organisations take a knock too. The consequences of sexual harassment in the workplace include lower levels of work satisfaction, stagnating productivity, decreased staff morale leading to increased absenteeism and high labour turnover. These repercussions once again emphasise that HR practitioners and company leadership can no longer afford to adopt a reactive approach to sexual harassment. Ultimately, an organisation’s entire culture needs to drive home the message that sexual harassment will not be tolerated in any form.

This begs the question: What practical steps can HR departments and employers take to improve victims’ reporting behaviour and generally make themselves more accessible to victims?

Firstly, employers and HR departments must strengthen workplace sexual harassment policies, and tailor interventions to address and bring to light under-the-surface harassment. HR departments also need to be more receptive and accessible. Other key combating strategies include raising awareness about what constitutes sexual harassment and educating employees about their rights and recourses. Due to the emotional nature of this particular workplace challenge, access to counselling services must form an integral part of any solution.

South Africa has progressive labour legislation to protect sexual harassment victims but this can only be set in motion if victims are able to step forward and be heard. To give employees that essential voice, employers must create safe and open workplace environments.

Aadil Patel, Fatima Moosa and Mariella Noriega Del Valle, Cliffe Dekker Hofmeyr.

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