The Employment Equity Act (EEA) effectively prohibits sexual harassment of employees by other employees and holds the employer liable in such cases even if the employer does not know that sexual harassment is going on. Specifically, section 60 of the EEA provides that, if the employer fails to take the steps necessary to deal with unfair discrimination or sexual harassment and it is proved that an employee has contravened the relevant provisions, the employer must be deemed also to have contravened that provision.
The courts have upheld this provision. For example, in the case of Christian vs Colliers Properties (2005, 5 BLLR 479) Ms Christian was appointed as a typist by the employer. Two days after starting work the owner of the business asked her if she had a boyfriend and invited her to dinner. He also invited her to sit on his lap and kissed her on the neck. When she later objected to the owner’s conduct he asked her whether she was “in or out”. When she said that she was “not in” he asked her why he should allow her employment to continue. She was dismissed with two days pay and referred to a sexual harassment dispute.
In a default judgement, the Court decided that:
• The employee had been dismissed for refusing the owner’s advances;
• This constituted an automatically unfair dismissal based on sexual discrimination; and
• Newly appointed employees are as deserving of protection from sexual harassment as are their longer-serving colleagues.
The employer had to pay the employee:
• 24 months’ remuneration in compensation;
• Additional damages;
• Interest on the amounts to be paid; and
• The employee’s legal costs.
The above finding might lead employers to believe that, in order to protect themselves, they need to dismiss any employee found guilty of sexual harassment. However, this is not always so. For example, in the case of SABC Ltd VS Grogan (2006, 2 BLLR 207) a regional sales manager was dismissed for (amongst other things) sexual harassment after he had allegedly kissed a junior female colleague several times, given her love literature and had physical contact with her in his car. An arbitrator later found that, while he was guilty of sexual harassment the level of seriousness of his conduct did not merit dismissal. This was largely because the alleged victim had not seemed to mind his advances very much and had said she thought he should not be dismissed. The arbitrator, therefore, ordered the employer to reinstate the employee. The Employer took this decision on review to Labour Court but lost again as the Court pronounced the arbitrator’s finding to have been properly thought out and justified.
The above case findings show that:
1. Employers cannot ignore sexual harassment of their employees and must act swiftly.
2. However, this does not mean that dismissal is appropriate in every case.
3. Employers need to use reputable labour law experts to assist with:
• Deciding what the appropriate action should be in each individual case of sexual harassment.
• Designing a comprehensive sexual harassment policy.
• Ensuring that every owner, manager and employee knows and understands the severe consequences of committing such acts.
• Communicating to all concerned that such misconduct will result in severe penalties including possible dismissal.
• Ensuring that all employees feel entirely free to report sexual harassment.
• Training all employees in the above-listed issues as well as in what constitutes sexual harassment, how to deal with it, where to report it and the company’s supportive policy towards sexual harassment victims.