SA’s sexual harassment code now covers bullying – and ‘condescending eye contact’

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  • On Friday, a government guide on dealing with sexual harassment at work was replaced by a guide also covering bullying, and racial harassment.
  • It defines various types of harassment, including passive-aggressive harassment via facial expression.
  • Employers, including those of domestic workers, are now required to protect their employees from “condescending eye contact”, including by visitors and staff.
  • For more stories go to www.BusinessInsider.co.za.

As of Friday, South African employers are required to protect their staff against a wide range of bullying behaviour, from gestures that threaten violence right through to certain types of facial expressions.

Through publication in the Government Gazette, labour minister Thulas Nxesi replaced a 2005 code on dealing with sexual harassment at work with a much broader approach, the Code of Good Practice on the Prevention and Elimination of Harassment in the Workplace. It was first put out for public comment in 2020, and is now immediately in effect.

The new code lays out what employers should do – such providing extra sick leave and trauma counselling – and should not do – such as belittling complaints – when it comes to harassment of just about any nature, just about anywhere, from just about anybody.

It covers racial harassment, including innuendo and stereotyping based on race, which is “assumed to be offensive and unwanted to any individual who may be exposed to the language or conduct.”

It covers people who work from home, and work-related communication, as well as any space an employer may have control over. Domestic workers are explicitly included, as are workers in the informal sector.

It covers harassment by bosses as well as colleagues, visitors, and clients, and managers are specifically required to protect workers against a hostile work environment created by nasty customers.

Employers can fall foul of the code through actions such as “surveillance of an employee without their knowledge and with harmful intent”, but also by failing to stop colleagues from “spreading rumours maliciously” about one another. 

Perhaps the most difficult to guard against is passive-aggressive harassment, which can committed via the face.

“Passive-aggressive or covert harassment may include negative gossip, negative joking at someone’s expense, sarcasm, condescending eye contact, facial expression, or gestures, mimicking to ridicule, deliberately causing embarrassment and insecurity, invisible treatment, marginalisation, social exclusion, professional isolation, and deliberately sabotaging someone’s dignity, well-being, happiness, success, and career performance,” reads the definition in the new code.

That definition is plagiarised from Preston Ni, an American author and coach who specialises in dealing with difficult people.

Employers are expected to draw up harassment policies that take a zero-tolerance stance and that make it “a disciplinary offence to victimise or retaliate” against any employee who files a harassment grievance, either on their own behalf or for another employee.

(Compiled by Phillip de Wet)

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