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Dealing with sexual harassment at work

Sometimes, in the workplace, it can be tricky to work out where casual compliments or flirtation end and sexual harassment begins. For example, Nice dress! might not be a problem. But Nice legs in that dress! could be awkward. And Nice well, you get the idea.

Of course, at the other end of the spectrum, there are the very clear cases of sexual harassment that leave you feeling stunned and tearful. This could be your boss offering you a raise or promotion in return for some kind of sexual favour, or, even worse, touching you inappropriately.

Whichever it is, it has to stop. You must take a stand not only to protect yourself but also to protect the rights of all women. We spoke to Linda Gouveia, a labour consultant at the Labour Workshop, about what you should do if someone's advances in the work place are making you uncomfortable or are outright inappropriate. This is what she said.

Step 1: Ask him to stop
If you're feeling uncomfortable about a colleague's inappropriate flirtation or observations, ask him politely to stop. He may be unaware that he's overstepping a mark, and a polite request could be all you need to do to get him to leave you alone. Remember that different women find different things offensive, so approach this from your own perspective: I feel uncomfortable when you...

If you find it difficult to tackle him face to face or on your own, you can also do this on email or ask a colleague to accompany you when you confront him.

Step 2: Lay a complaint
If he doesn't stop, or if you're the victim of a clear case of harassment, lay a complaint with his line manager or the HR department to make sure that it's addressed. Most companies will have a policy in place for dealing with this type of complaint, which should state that harassment will not be tolerated, in line with the CCMA's Code of Good Practice on Sexual Harassment.

Don't be put off by a fear of making waves. He is in the wrong for his action, not you for your reaction.

Step 3: Formal or informal procedures
Once a complaint has been laid, the next step is a grievance procedure. You may have some say in whether an informal or formal grievance procedure is followed, or the HR or line manager involved may decide which is the most appropriate measure.

In an informal grievance procedure, an HR representative or line manager will have a discussion with the offender, allow him to tell his side of the story and then caution him about repeating his behaviour. In a formal grievance procedure, there may be a hearing and the warning will go on record, possibly even leading to dismissal.

Even if you find this uncomfortable or difficult, it's so important to stick to your guns! You need your harasser to stop, and this is the only way to do it.

Step 4: If the harassment continues
There's another important reason for laying an official complaint: there is always a possibility that the harassment won't stop. In that case, it's important to have a record of the problem from as early as possible so that further action can be taken with an understanding of the full history.

You will have to lay an additional complaint with HR or the relevant line manager. While you may be discouraged by the fact that nothing came of it the first time, take heart that a repeat harassment should be taken a lot more seriously.

Step 5: Appealing for outside help
In some cases, it might be difficult or impossible to get the results you'd hoped for out of your harasser or your employer. The company could be very small, the harasser very senior or the appropriate action might not be taken by management. If you've tried every internal route with no meaningful results, then you can take the company to the CCMA to elicit an objective outcome.

There have been cases where the CCMA has accepted documented proof of sexual harassment as evidence of constructive dismissal this is when resigning is the only option in an intolerable working environment and ordered the company to compensate the victim financially. While this should be a last resort, you can rest easy knowing that the matter of sexual harassment is taken so seriously by our legal framework.

Final word
Don't be afraid to stand up for your rights, especially in the workplace, where you deserve only respect and support. Be strong and fight the good fight not only for yourself but for the thousands of other women out there who are victims of sexual harassment.

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