Legal expert gives advice on handling harassment issues
While most people perceive harassment to relate strictly to a physical interaction, a labour and human resources attorney says the psychology in dealing with cases of harassment in the workplace – sexual or otherwise – is in some cases the most taxing aspect for victims.
Tracy Mouton, a director and human resources and labour law attorney at Goldberg & De Villiers, spoke on the topic of harassment at an interactive session hosted by the Business Women’s Association at iSango Gate Boutique Hotel.
Mouton said all companies had to subscribe to the Labour Relations Act document “The code of good practice in handling sexual harassment cases”, and people needed to be educated about their rights.
“The difficulty with understanding sexual harassment revolves around how the person/ victim feels about an incident.
“It is a subjective element measured against an objective fact of what a normal person would do in that situation.
“Harassment is not only sexual. Harassment includes all conduct which is in the form of unfair discrimination. It is prohibited by the grounds which are stipulated in the Employment Equity Act, which are race, sexual orientation and religion,” Mouton said.
Discrimination may also pertain to pregnancy, marital status, family responsibility, age, disability, HIV status, or any other arbitrary ground.
She said the most common form of harassment she had dealt with had been sexual harassment between managers and staff.
“I’ve dealt with a lot of genuine cases where you are away on a business trip and your manager constantly does interesting things – wanting to borrow your charger. Or walking into the hotel room of his colleague and going ‘oh look I’m in my gown! Oh sorry I forgot to put underwear on’.
“These are instances of intense harassment where the perpetrator isolates you because they have a plan.
“The important thing about harassment here is that it’s sexual attention, it’s persisted in and it’s clearly offensive and the perpetrator should have known that it was unacceptable.”
Mouton said harassment did not necessarily have to be repetitive. She said a single incident could break a person.
Another form of harassment is the “quid pro quo”, something for something.
Mouton said repeated harassment could change one’s behaviour.
If a case of harassment brought by an employee is lost in an internal investigation, the victim can always open a criminal case, she advised.
She said most of the race-related cases of harassment she had dealt with were because of an existing stereotype.
“Some racial offenders are unaware they are offending anyone and merely doing it because that was always the stereotype.
“In those cases you have to say ‘no I didn’t like that and that’s why I didn’t like it’.
“Some people need to be educated about stereotypes while others are just racist.”
In reporting a case of harassment it is very important to document it by telling someone or making a note of instances.
“This is when you create your voice. In some cases you find that when you tell a colleague it may have happened to them. Some offenders are serial perpetrators.
“The big thing with any type of harassment is it’s a ‘he said she said’ situation so when it happens you have to document it, you have to confide in someone, whether it’s your psychologist, GP or pastor at church,” Mouton said.