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Improving the quality of the work environment includes addressing the rules and regulations regarding appropriate workplace behaviour. To further nationwide efforts associated with conduct, South Africa has introduced a new code to aid in the prevention and elimination of workplace harassment. This code details the concept of harassment and highlights specific branches within it, including those of sexual, racial, ethnic and social origin.

Committed to keeping our clients informed of key industry and regulatory developments that could impact their businesses, the MMS Group has compiled this blog to clarify the nature of harassment, assessing it in the workplace and mapping out the way forward under the new code. 

What is harassment?

The new code defines harassment as ‘unwanted conduct’ that impairs an individual’s dignity and creates a hostile environment that may induce submission through threatened consequences. This also includes discrimination prohibited within the Employment Equity Act.

Workplace conduct that includes slander, humiliation, sabotage, exclusion and demotion without justification are a few examples provided in this code for instances considered harassment. The code also recognises that there may be company-specific terms used to describe conduct that attributes to a hostile environment.

Sexual harassment

Harassment comprising discrimination on the grounds of sex, gender or sexual orientation is classified as sexual harassment. This harassment is defined as unwanted direct or indirect conduct of a sexual nature. Misconduct can be physical, verbal or non-verbal and can include:

  • Quid pro quo harassment: When an employee is coerced into engaging, tolerating or surrendering to sexual acts for work related benefits.
  • Sexual favouritism: A branch of ‘quid pro quo harassment’ where an individual of authority only rewards employees who respond to sexual advances.
  • Victimisation: When an employee is intimidated or victimised for rejecting sexual advances.
Social, racial or ethnic harassment

Conduct constituting unfair discrimination on the grounds of race, ethnicity or social origin falls into its own classification of harassment. In terms of the new code, this harassment includes misconduct that undermines an individual’s dignity or creates a hostile work environment. Examples provided in the code include:

  • Abusive language
  • Subtle or blatant exclusion
  • Offensive visual or written material
  • Name-calling
  • Open hostility
  • Negative stereotyping

Assessing workplace harassment

The new code poses certain challenges for employers regarding the assessment of employee complaints. Determining whether or not conduct constitutes harassment needs to be done so objectively. The primary focus should be the impact of the misconduct that has occurred.  

However, the code takes into consideration that there are instances where the perceptions of the complainant are not reasonable. In this case, employers are required to factor in reflective societal values to determine its validity. The following factors will be most relevant:

  • The context
  • The circumstances and impact of the misconduct
  • The respective positions of involved employees

The way forward

To better address workplace harassment, employers are required to implement awareness training initiatives to help educate employees on the different kinds of harassment. Doing so should aid in preventing and eliminating workplace harassment and will be taken into account to determine whether a business has complied with the obligations outlined in the Employment Equity Act.

More information on the Code of Good Practice on the Prevention and Elimination of Harassment in the Workplace is available on this link. 

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