Overcoming sexual harassment in the workplace

Harassment of an individual on sexual grounds is against contemporary laws, protocols, and conventions on human rights.

THE International Labour Organisation (ILO) outlines sexual harassment as sex-based behaviour that is unwelcome or offensive to the recipient.

Alongside the ILO, in Zimbabwe, the Labour Relations Amendment Act 2002, No.17 (Amendment of Section 8 of Cap: 28:01 (g) provides sexual harassment as when an employer demands sexual favours from an individual as a condition of offer of employment, creation or abolition of jobs, compensation, training, transfer, promotion, or retrenchment.

These acts become harassment when submission to such conduct is made explicitly or implicitly as a condition of employment or submission to or rejection of such conduct is used as the basis of employment decisions affecting the individual.

The two common forms of sexual harassment are quid-pro-quo, meaning favour for favour. This is when an employee is forced to select either giving in to a superior’s sexual advances or risk foregoing a financial or non-financial benefit.

The other one is hostile environment. This depicts a more severe form that includes physical acts and interferes with the individual’s performance.

Harassment of an individual on sexual grounds is against contemporary laws, protocols, and conventions on human rights. Globally, despite hyped calls against sexual harassment by human rights organisations, World Health Organisation, and women activist groups against gender violence, sexual harassment remains a complex social problem.

While there is limited research on it, available statistics show that men are the main perpetrators and women are the major victims. The type of woman most vulnerable is young, financially dependent, single, or divorced. For men, those prone are young, members of minority races and groups like same sex people, where the trend is on the rise.

Historically in Zimbabwe, while the Labour Relations Act (LRA) (28:01) covered sexual harassment as prohibited, it did not, until recently with the new Bill (2021) which  presents sexual harassment as a criminal offence and prohibits any forms of harassment, which includes action in the course of and linked with or arising out of work, communication, work related trips, and commuting to and from work.

The revised position notes that any person, who is found guilty of sexual harassment can be jailed for up to 10 years.

 As a first, in 2021, the High Court of Zimbabwe made a ruling in favour of the victim in a protracted sexual harassment case involving Rita Marque Lunga-Mbatha.

Her employment with the Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries (CZI) was terminated following sexual harassment allegations against the then chief executive officer, Farai Zizhou whom she worked for as personal assistant around 2002.

The ruling in her favour ushered in hopes for victims who suffer in silence. While the case took time to be concluded, evidence presented indicated that her life and personality changed considerably. She lost her job and marriage.

Sexual harassment takes place verbally, non-verbally, in writing or physically and recently social media.

In Zimbabwe, verbal forms include addressing someone as babe, honey, sweetie, whistling, cat calls, commenting suggestively on physical features, or clothing, sexual jokes, love songs, and innuendoes.

Non-verbal cues include blocking someone’s pathway, using elevator eyes, staring, displaying pornographic material, dance moves, winking, kissing sign, and licking lips.

Physicals include fondling, extended hand shacks, finger scratching palm, slap/touch on the body, invading personal space, and rape.

These advances that unreasonably create an intimidating environment, do not have to be incessant to constitute sexual harassment. Any one act of the unwanted behaviours is sexual harassment.

World-wide, most victims shy away from reporting incidents due to a myriad of reasons including cultural, legal, organisational, and personal.

In Zimbabwe, if the victim is a woman, society usually blames her for allegedly ‘inviting’ the abuse due to her demeanour, over-revealing clothing, and appearance.

There is a stigma associated with the victims who are called derogatory names like loose cannons, indecent and prostitutes. If the victim is married, she risks losing her marriage as the husband may blame her for improper conduct.

It is the embarrassment associated with labels of promiscuity that deter women from reporting incidents. In the event of a male victim, there are fears of society ridiculing him as ‘less of a man’.

Research has shown that superior-junior level incidents are evident in almost 99% of males against female victims. This relationship brings an unfair advantage to the superior who wields power to hire and fire.

 Fears of losing one’s job, and adverse performance evaluation reports are common. Besides, victims generally lack confidence in the process, and without any form of evidence, it becomes a case of her word against his, leaving only a few cases reported.

In Zimbabwe, the situation is exacerbated by lack of policies on avoidance of sexual harassment. Most companies rely on the LRA provisions that are broad and require HR department to operationalise them for ease of application.

While there are grievance and disciplinary handling procedures in place, most HR professionals are neither empowered to objectively handle sexual harassment cases, especially those involving their own supervisors, nor they lack the competencies to handle such complex cases.

While some HR leaders have attempted to train staff on what constitutes sexual harassment, the majority lack guidelines on how to do so. This position was confirmed in a joint baseline survey between the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Public Service Commission in 2020.

They assessed the knowledge, attitudes, and perceptions towards sexual harassment within the public service.

The results confirmed that while sexual harassment remains common, it is inadequately addressed and employees lack knowledge on what constitutes it.

In many cases the victim is constructively dismissed. For these reasons, most victims do not trust HR department to objectively handle incidents.

Added to these are costs related to litigation and the time it takes for the case to be concluded, all work against reporting. In Zimbabwe, the office set up for most directors and personal assistants (PA) provides a conducive environment for perpetrators.

The offices are usually located at the far end of the building floor, separate from everyone else, with the PA’s office first, with a connecting door to the director’s office. Spacious, with exquisite furniture that includes leather couches, the two work long hours, daily, behind closed doors. This presents a fertile grounds for sexual harassment.

Research on the effects of sexual harassment on the victims has shown that they experience somatic symptoms like headaches, fatigue, body pains, sleep disorders, nightmares, loss of appetite, and weight loss or weight gain due to comfort eating.

At work, victims become disengaged, reduce productivity levels, poor work performance, and increase in levels of absenteeism or presenteeism.

Psychological effects include stress, attention disorders, withdrawn behaviours, self-blame, a lack of self-esteem, irritability, isolation, bitterness, depression, trauma, anger, guilt, fear, frustration, bad memories, suicidal tendencies, revengeful feelings, and helplessness. Some develop high blood pressure, severe headaches, and heart complications.

Others quit their jobs, or request transfers to other offices. With the devastating effect that sexual abuse has on victims, there is need to establish safeguards to prevent it from happening.

While at national level, the legal arm has taken a leading role to put up laws to prohibit any forms of sexual harassment, at organisational level, leaders must take full responsibility for ensuring a safe workplace.

In collaboration with the HR department, they must lead by example. Employees should feel safe to report incidents without fear of retaliation.

Among other ways, here are recommendations on how to ensure effective positioning against sexual harassment:

HR leaders must have policies on how to handle sexual harassment.

Grievance handling and disciplinary procedures must be outlined, communicated, and made available to all staff.

Every perpetrator must be held accountable.

Anti-sexual harassment posters must be stuck up on strategic positions within the offices and on intranet sites where staff have access.

New employee onboarding programs must include orientation on sexual harassment.

Leaders must be trained on what constitutes sexual harassment.

HR must be empowered to deal with all reported cases objectively.

Establish an ethics office that ensures protection of victims’ rights to fairness.

Redress procedures must be culturally sensitive, ensure confidentiality.

Leaders must walk the talk on avoidance of sexual harassment.

All reported cases must be handled with due seriousness, respectfully, concluded timely, fairly, transparently, and satisfactorily.

Consider office re-modelling, move to open plan.

Use tip-off anonymous or whistle blowing to allow more avenues to raise concerns.

While shrouded in controversy and contestation, sexual harassment remains a complex reality. Redressing this vice requires a systems thinking perspective, where solutions are premised based on a holistic approach.

This approach takes into consideration all the interconnected and interrelated parts around sexual harassment and involves key stakeholders in the decision-making.

Using a systems thinking perspective, and riding on an interactive planning approach, starting with the end in mind and following the routine of planning backwards, will there be success in reigning in sexual harassment

This article was published in Coming out of the shadows: The untold stories of sexual harassment in Zimbabwe’s media compiled and edited by Faith Zaba, The book, which is a first of a series, was launched today by Friedrich Naumann Foundation.

  • Dr Tendayi is a trusted global human resources and leadership executive with more than 25 years’ experience leading and managing the HR function in countries in Southern Africa and currently in the United States. She authored two best-selling HR books in Zimbabwe, namely Hands Off! Overcoming Sexual Harassment in the Workplace (2019) and My Boss, the Bully – A Chilling Revelation into Corporate Human Resources Management (2018), based on a true story.


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