Sexual harassment in the workplace is a form of sex discrimination which negatively affects the working environment, undermines gender equality at work, creates unfair practices in employment and adversely impacts the dignity and well-being of workers. It creates psychological anxiety and stress for victims and, if ignored, can result in high costs for companies through loss of productivity, low worker morale, absenteeism and staff turnover. Unfortunately, incidences of sexual harassment in the workplace are not handled with the seriousness they deserve; often they are trivialised or personalised, if not considered as natural and inevitable.
Sexual harassment can be defined as any behaviour of a sexual nature that affects the dignity of women and men, which is considered as unwanted, unacceptable, inappropriate and offensive to the recipient, and that creates an intimidating, hostile, unstable or offensive work environment.
“Quid pro quo” (this for that) sexual harassment is committed when an employer, supervisor, manager or co-worker undertakes or attempts to influence the process of recruitment, promotion, training, discipline, dismissal, salary increment or other benefit of an existing staff member or job applicant, in exchange for sexual favours. It must be quickly pointed out that the victim, as well as the harasser, may be a woman or a man. The victim does not have to be of the opposite sex from the harasser. Sexual harassment can happen to men, women and people of any sexual orientation. Additionally, the victim does not have to be the person harassed but could be anyone affected by the offensive conduct.
The worst forms of sexual harassment are criminal acts such as sexual assault or rape, which are covered under the Penal Code as well as the Gender Equality Act (2014) of the Laws of Malawi.
Sexual harassment can be a one-off incident or an ongoing pattern of behaviour. It can happen in person or in other ways, for example online through things like email, social media or messaging tools. Examples include: flirting, gesturing or making sexual remarks about someone’s body, clothing or appearance; asking questions about someone’s sex life; telling sexually offensive jokes; displaying or sharing pornographic or sexual images, or other sexual content; touching someone against their will, for example hugging them; sexual assault or rape; sexually explicit e-mails, notes or SMS messages; suggestive body language, indecent exposure; gestures with fingers.
Section 6(1) of the Gender Equality Act (2014) of the Laws of Malawi protects people against sexual harassment. The said law covers all employees, non-employees (who have dealings with the workplace including contractors and self-employed people hired to personally do the work) as well as job applicants.
By law, employers must do everything they reasonably can to protect staff from sexual harassment. Section 7 of the above Act requires employers to develop and implement appropriate policy and procedures aimed at eliminating sexual harassment in the workplace which shall, among other things, entitle all persons who have been subjected to sexual harassment in the workplace to raise a grievance about its occurrence and be guaranteed that appropriate disciplinary action shall be taken against perpetrators; entitle a non-employee who has been subjected to sexual harassment to lodge a grievance with the employer of the perpetrator where the conduct giving rise to the complaint has taken place at the workplace or in the course of the perpetrator’s employment.
Top management (C-Suit) is obliged to commit themselves totally in implementation of the policy and procedures and impose disciplinary action against employees who do not comply; dealing seriously, expeditiously, sensitively and confidentially with all allegations of sexual harassment; protecting employees against victimisation, retaliation for lodging grievances and from false accusations; and communicate the sexual harassment policy and grievance procedures effectively to all employees.
Victims of sexual harassment fear that they would be labelled employees of low morals and that they provoked the perpetrator to behave in the manner that s/he did. They refrain from reporting the matter to the authorities for fear of such repercussions. They are intimidated with detrimental action like dismissal to bring more shame on them and vindicate the employer. Institutionalisation of sexual harassment is a breach duty by an employer under Section 13 of the Occupational Safety and Health and Welfare Act (1997) to ensure a safe workplace. However, in the case of T. K. v Mota Engil Engenharia Construcao (2017) the court awarded the claimant K30,000,000 as aggravated damages for the defendant’s negligence and breach of duty as an employer.
To keep perpetrators of sexual harassment at the workplace is a road to corporate downfall! Workplace sexual vampires, back off!