Perspectives on the World of Work

  • Michaela Ramiah

Sexual harassment in the workplace

Sexual harassment is not just a taboo topic of conversation nor is it a mere social issue. Sexual harassment is identified as an infringement of human rights and a manner of sexual discrimination which has become an on-going concern on a national and international level. It is not subjective to nightlife, social gatherings, social media or public spaces but has become a major problem in professional environments such as the workplace.

Despite the fact that many nations have regulations controlling sexual harassment in the workplace, it is nonetheless prevalent and under reported this is due to the fact that sexual harassment presently typically takes on more subtle forms instead of being propositioned for sexual acts or improperly touched, an employee may get provocative texts, photographs, unwelcome sexually charged comments, or invites to meetings that by some means progress into unwanted intentional dates.

What is the definition of sexual harassment?

Employee harassment is a type of discriminatory practice and is unlawful on any of the specified grounds in Section 9 of the Constitution[1] and Section 6 of the Equity Employment Act.

[2] The Equity Employment Act defines sexual harassment as "unwanted sexual conduct that causes a person to feel insulted, humiliated, or intimidated." This encompasses gay and bisexual harassment as well as sexual harassment of the opposing gender. [3]

Sexual Harassment Types:

There are two kinds of sexual harassment:

  • Quid pro quo harassment

  • Hostile work environment harassment.

Quid pro quo harassment is the acceptance of harassment in exchange for job-related benefits or the avoidance of job-related disadvantage. In this case, an employee may be promised a promotion in return for sexual favours, or he or she may be threatened with dismissal if such sexual favours are not provided.

When an employee is subjected to unwelcome sexual physical or verbal behaviour that is so severe or pervasive that it alters the employee's working circumstances or produces an abusive workspace, this is referred to as a hostile work environment.

Whereas quid pro quo is generally evident, hostile work environment is more complex.

Unwanted caressing, groping of breasts or private areas, solicitations for sexual gratification, sexually explicit words and expressions, and enclosing in a confined space are examples of more unsubtle sexual harassment.

While blatant forms of sexual harassment are still prevalent in the workplace, subtle types are on the rise among these include, but are not limited to:

  • Inappropriate contact through text messages or frequent compliments on an employee's appearance.

  • Inappropriate remarks on employees appeal.

  • Sharing one's sex life in front of a co-worker or inquiring about one's sex life in front of a co-worker.

  • Making sexual jokes and catcalling.

  • Sexual rumours about an employee.

The Cost Of Sexual Harassment (Adapted from the ILO’s Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work)


  • Psychological distress, such as humiliation, demotivation, and low self-esteem, isolation and deterioration of relationships are examples of behavioural changes.

  • Physical and mental illnesses caused by stress, including drug and alcohol abuse;

  • Victims who have passed up career prospects, quit their jobs, or committed suicide;


Reduced corporate productivity as a result of:

  • impaired judgment

  • hampered teamwork

  • demotivation

  • high absenteeism

  • No one will apply for a job where they are afraid of sexual harassment;

  • When there is a lack of trust and team spirit in the workplace, progress and innovation is impeded.


  • Costs of long-term rehabilitation for victims' reintegration;

  • Unemployment welfare benefits and retraining;

  • Invalidity costs for those with impaired working capacities;

  • Expenses associated with the legal and criminal justice systems;

  • Women's entry to historically male-dominated high-status and well-paid jobs has been restricted.

South Africa has built a network of appropriate legislation to combat  workplace sexual harassment. Legislation and codes of good practice have gone so far as to establish accessible mechanisms (formal or informal) and advice services to allow complainants to disclose their complaints while also assuring them of anonymity and protection from retaliation. Employees who have been exploited may resign and claim unfair dismissal. 

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