Don’t Go Without Solid Policies in Your Organisation

Part II: Harassment and Abuse Policies

Devan Moonsamy


As discussed in the first part of this series, a sound policy structure is an insurance blanket against many common problems that crop up in the workplace. Policy is a cornerstone of responsible management because it protects all concerned parties. What must be emphasised as much as the need for a policy is that staff know its provisions and abide by them.

Training and workshopping a policy are thus necessary, and the right corporate trainer can do exactly that, but in an innovative way that ensures staff are well engaged in the policy training session and not bored and inattentive.

My many years of engagement with managers and staff in diverse South African contexts has helped me see that all parties want to feel secure at work, and they usually dislike ambiguity. They want to know what is expected of them and those around them.

In fact, an effective way to relieve stress and conflict among your staff is to make sure they know exactly where they stand. Policy provisions combined with education on such provisions is a winning formula in this regard.

So what policies should be drafted? We discussed BEE and gender equity policies in the first part of this article series. Here we will look at harassment and abuse policies, which can safeguard against many PR and labour-related problems.

Harassment and Abuse Policy

Companies and officials have a responsibility to protect those who are seen as vulnerable or as targets by abusers and harassers. ‘Harassment and abuse’ do sound scary, and this often means people just avoid the issues and hope it never happens. What should be much more scary is that the issues are being ignored, because this means that problems will happen. They most certainly are happening because few seem to have the skills, empathy and authority to really tackle harassment and abuse in the workplace in a meaningful way.

However, it is not that hard to draft a policy about harassment and abuse, and we will give you some great pointers here. When looking to draft any policy, a good starting point is our country’s legislation, which tells us a lot about what everyone’s rights and responsibilities are on all manner of issues. If in doubt, start with the Constitution’s provisions on human rights. Harassment and abuse are infringements against these rights.

Policy provisions should expressly forbid racism, sexual harassment, harassment of LGBTQI people, and xenophobia. The policy must protect employees against offensive speech – especially hate speech – and gestures and acts by having a reporting line and real consequences for offenders. Stipulations should be given for the offence to be acknowledged, the victim supported and protected from further harassment, and the offender to be held to account according to the seriousness of the offence.

To educate employees, they need to understand what harassment is. The difference between a thoughtless or poorly worded remark and harassment is fear. When a comment or action makes a person feel threatened, it is harassment. On the other hand, abuse is more easily recognised, but employees should know that it is to mistreat someone with disregard for their human rights. Put these definitions and explanations in the policy document so there is no ambiguity.

Power and authority can be abused in combination with abusing an employee, making such behaviour more serious than people realise. People may take a theft case more seriously than sexual harassment, forgetting that there are at least two victims in the latter case, and only one in the former. Sexual harassment endangers a company’s reputation as well as the victim of the abuse, and it should be taken much more seriously than it usually is.

A wolf whistle may seem harmless, for example, but for a young woman it can be very unsettling. This is because she is aware of what is really on the harasser’s mind. In a young woman, such fear will affect how happy and secure she is at work. Your workplace policy must protect her. Don’t just think about the company’s reputation, think about keeping your staff safe and happy so that they can give their best at work.

Employees should preferably be educated on what harassment is and why it is a problem before there is any chance for harassment to happen. There should be no uncertainty as to what is expected of men and women in the workplace.

Three other key factors related to harassment and abuse should also be discussed in policy and with staff: vulnerability, opportunity and consent. Some are more likely targets than others in terms of abuse. It is wise to prevent opportunities for harassment of vulnerable individuals by ensuring there is good supervision and security in place.

The concept of consent should be explained so that there is no uncertainty. Consent for any sexual act must be explicitly given. However, it is wise for management to prohibit sex, sexual acts and propositions for sex at work. This does not mean that there is no place for romance, but sex acts and propositions should not be happening during working hours and on company premises. Age of consent (16 years, but exceptions apply which make it unwise until the person is 18) can also be explained to employees and discussed in the policy.

Further issues to cover in your harassment policy include clear boundaries for behaviour, speech and equity; the various types of relationships that can arise in the workplace, and the professional expectations for these, specifically in relation to sexism; safety procedures; reporting lines and communication procedures; and legal recourse and punishment of offenders.

Staff who know all the basics will be much better equipped to handle and prevent abuse and harassment, as well as being forewarned as to what will happen if they perpetrate acts of abuse or harassment. It is easier to hold an employee to account on key performance indicators (KPIs), as many readers will well know, when they are clearly set out on paper, and the employee was made fully aware of them. Likewise, when staff members know the company’s stance on abuse and harassment, as clearly contained in policy, they will be more likely to respect conduct parameters.

ICHAF is a training provider with years of experience in training up conscientised, empowered employees who serve as proud and reliable brand ambassadors. Not only do we train staff on the critical skills needed for their job tasks, we also work on soft skills including diversity management, conflict management, ethics, and leadership, to name a few. We are ideally placed to conduct workshops and educate your staff on abuse and harassment in the workplace to the benefit of all involved. Let us show your staff the way to boost their career and the company’s image through best practice policies.