Q: I need some help with something that happened at work recently. Am I just over-reacting? What can I do?

I need some help with something that happened at work recently. Our company spent the day in a strat-conference, and afterwards a group of us stayed on for some team-building drinks. A manager in another department started making comments about me: he kept asking me to “bend over” (I was wearing a mini-skirt), suggested that they enter me in a wet-T-shirt competition (I was wearing a white blouse), said he hadn’t seen such a juicy piece of meat since his last visit to Teazers, then asked how much I charged per hour. He thought that what he was saying was hilarious and laughed at each comment, but I felt really uncomfortable about it. Then I found out this morning that the company’s doing some minor restructuring and I’ll be reporting to him from next month. I’m very unhappy about this, but I desperately need this job. Am I just over-reacting? What can I do?

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A:

The way we see it, you probably have three choices:

  • To resign. (Which, by the way, we do not recommend.)
  • To go with the flow and accept the restructure. But be aware that given the way this manager acted towards you, it’s probably very likely that he’ll continue treating you in the same unacceptable manner. (So we wouldn’t advocate this approach either.)
  • To approach your current manager and explain your predicament. If he or she doesn’t take your concerns seriously then you can speak to your HR department about lodging a complaint of sexual harassment. Hopefully your employer has a Sexual Harassment Policy in place, in which event you should read this policy to see what the correct procedure is. (This would be our suggested approach.)

Are you over-reacting? Categorically, no! What happened to you constitutes sexual harassment and is completely unacceptable. Sexual harassment is one of those unspoken evils that frequently plagues the workplace. In the past it’s often been swept under the carpet with many managers refusing to acknowledge the problem, and unfortunately many women refusing to speak up for fear of being victimised, accused of over-reacting and, of course, for fear of placing their own job in jeopardy. But fortunately employers are starting to become more aware of the problem, our law protects employees in the case sexual harassment incidents, and our courts are increasingly upholding the rights of women in the workplace.

Here are some aspects of your incident that you also need to be aware of:

  • While the incident happened in a seemingly social setting, it was still a work-related social event. Which means it falls under the umbrella of the employment relationship, and your employer is required to and should deal with this matter in a serious light.
  • The fact that this was a once-off event is irrelevant. Even a single incident of sexual harassment is a serious matter.
  • The fact that there was no physical contact does not reduce the severity of the incident. Sexual harassment includes harassment of a verbal nature.
  • That the manager may have intended his comments to a be joke also does not reduce the severity. Sexual harassment is no laughing matter, and cannot be tolerated on the basis that it was intended to be funny.
  • The manager’s actions constitute misconduct that is serious enough for the company to take disciplinary action against him.
  • Given this incident, even if the manager is not dismissed for it, we can see no reasonable justification for the company to insist upon moving you into his reporting line. Our Constitution protects the rights of human dignity and equality – and by insisting on the proposed restructure your rights as an employee are negatively impacted.

So we recommend that you familiarise yourself with your company’s Sexual Harassment Policy and take it from there. If your employer refuses to take your complaint seriously then you could speak to a labour specialist about your avenues of recourse through the Labour Court.

 

Please note that this information is supplied for general information and does not constitute legal advice. It is advisable for you to contact a legal practitioner for guidance in respect of your unique requirements.

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