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What dangers do sexual harassment scandals like Vavi's hold for your business?

by , 30 July 2013
Sexual harassment claims against Zwelinzima Vavi general secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) have raised serious questions about sexual harassment in the workplace. According to media reports, Vavi has been accused of raping a Cosatu employee in her office in January. While Vavi has denied the allegation, he admitted to having an affair with the woman who has since withdrawn the sexual harassment complaint. You'll do well not to brush this incident off as a political ploy as this scenario can become a reality in your workplace. Read on to discover the real cost of sexual harassment incidents on your business.

Sexual harassment incidents can have dire consequences for your business – especially if you don't take proactive steps to curb it.

So what exactly are the consequences of sexual harassment on your business?

Sexual harassment can cost your business a significant amount of money because an employee who has been sexually harassed by your other employee can sue you (employer) for the damages she/he has suffered (in addition to suing the harasser).

According to the Labour Law for Managers Loose Leaf Service, your employee will usually sue you because you're more likely to have the money to pay.

It's important to note that these claims for damages have no limit.

An employee who has been sexually harassed has a number of options:

Firstly, in terms of Section 6 of the Employment Equity Act (EEA), harassment is a form of unfair discrimination.

And in terms of Section 60 of the same Act, if you don't take the necessary steps to remove the conduct that contravenes the provisions of the EEA, you're deemed to have contravened the provision.

In this case you'll be deemed to have contravened the prohibition against discrimination. If you're guilty of discrimination, the Labour Court can order you to pay damages to the employee who has suffered unfair discrimination.

Secondly, your employee could also sue you for damages in the High Court. This claim for damages could be based on the fact that you're liable for the acts of your employee (the employee who did the harassing).

This is called vicarious liability. Or it could be on the basis that you failed in your duty under our common law to take due care of your employee. You failed to ensure a safe working environment free of harassment.

Thirdly, you could also be sued for constructive dismissal if the sexual harassment makes your employee's working conditions intolerable.

'An employee who has been sexually harassed and whose employer does not address the problem may decide to resign and claim constructive dismissal in terms of Section 186 of the LRA,' says the Loose Leaf.

In terms of this claim your employee will be entitled to up to 24 months' remuneration as compensation in addition to whatever claim for pain, suffering and medical and other expenses she or he might have.

What can you do to avoid the risk of sexual harassment claims?

You can protect yourself against a sexual harassment claim by taking all reasonable steps to prevent sexual harassment from happening in the workplace. This includes putting a sexual harassment policy in place.

If you take all reasonable steps, your employee won't be able to argue that you've failed in your duty to take reasonable care and to ensure a safe working environment.

You can also minimise your risk if you take the necessary steps to remove the alleged sexual harassment from the workplace when an incident is reported to you.

It'll be difficult for your employee to resign and claim constructive dismissal if, once the harassment is reported, you take immediate and concrete action to prevent it from happening again and you address your employee's concerns and fears.

There you have it. Take all the necessary precautions to root out sexual harassment in your business or face these costly consequences

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