Harassment! The ugly devil in the workplace

by Abrie Bronkhorst

South Africa’s Constitution guarantees every South African the right to safety and security of the person, as well as the right to fair labour practices. These rights apply to both employers and employees alike and whilst there is a perception that only employees fall victim to harassment and intimidation in the workplace, employers can also be the victim. Workplace harassment and intimidation is one of the most rapidly increasing workplace issues. Employers must be aware of this growing problem and understand the impact not only on employees, but also on the reputation and productivity of the workplace.


Harassment refers to conduct (directly or indirectly) with the intent to harass, annoy or irritate another person, but with no intent to cause physical harm. Examples in the workplace can include:
  • following, watching, pursuing or accosting the victim, or loitering outside of or near the building or place where the victim resides, works, carries on business, studies or happens to be;
  • engaging in unsolicited verbal, electronic or any other communication aimed at the victim whether or not conversation ensues;
  • sending, delivering or causing the delivery of letters, telegrams, packages, facsimiles, electronic mail or other objects to the victim or leaving it where it will be found by, given to  or brought to the attention of the victim;
  • any kind of sexual behaviour;
  • unilateral work changes;
  • unrealistic workplace conditions or performance demands.


Intimidation is the intentional behaviour that would cause a person of ordinary sensibilities to fear injury or harm. Examples in the workplace can include:
  • yelling, cursing or swearing;
  • blaming an individual for the mistakes of others;
  • ridiculing through unsubstantiated criticism;
  • attacks on the victim’s self-esteem.

The result of harassment and intimidation

Main affected areas in the workplace include:
  • Loss of productivity due to emotional trauma of victims and distracted employees due to a loss of concentration. A harmonious working environment is vital for productivity.
  • Absenteeism due to fear, stress and emotional trauma. Low self-confidence and humiliation can also lead or contribute to other issues such as alcohol or drug abuse.
  • Misconduct due to the disturbance of workplace relationships. Fear, stress, intolerance, anger and paranoia can lead to other misconduct such as fighting, assault, further intimidation, unauthorised possession of weapons, damages to property, insubordination, negligence, poor work performance, sleeping on duty, etc.

Be proactive as the employer

Every individual has the right to be treated with dignity and respect. Employers, in fact, have an obligation to protect employees from all forms of harassment. It is advisable to implement an internal policy that highlights and prohibits this type of behaviour. The employer can then take disciplinary action against employees who are guilty of this type of behaviour. The employer can also present an awareness session about this prohibited behaviour. Each employee then signs an attendance register as proof that they have attended the session.
It is very important that the employer has a grievance policy and a relevant disciplinary code in place. The aim of the grievance procedure is firstly to create a harmonious working environment by identifying and resolving any dissatisfaction or feelings of injustice from an employee’s side. Secondly, the grievance procedure helps to protect the employer in a case of constructive dismissal, where the work situation had become so intolerable that the employee had no alternative other than to resign. In such a case the commissioner of the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration will always ask whether a grievance procedure was in place. Employers must take any complaints made by employees seriously and thoroughly investigate alleged incidents. Failure to do so may contribute to a referral of constructive dismissal. However, false complaints will be considered gross misconduct.
Regular communication is vital in the workplace. Meetings with employees, individually or in a group, will create a platform for employees to voice their thoughts and ideas, as well as to discuss any specific needs.
When trauma occurs in the workplace, it is always a good idea for the employer to consider counselling and even compassionate leave, depending on the circumstances.



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