Creating a Bullying Free Workplace for All South Africans

By Jessie Taylor

An estimated 78% of South Africans say they have experienced some form of victimisation in the workplace. But there is legislation to protect the workforce against workplace bullying and to compel employers to intervene to prevent bullying and harassment at work.

In Line With International Best Practice

Bullying can cause physical and psychological health problems, including increased blood pressure, panic attacks, increased stress and anxiety. Not only does bullying affect the well-being and productivity of an employee, but it can also affect the performance of the wider team. It can take a number of forms, including belittling a colleague’s opinion, false accusations, taking credit for another’s work, overloading others with work as a form of punishment, intimidation, verbal abuse and sexual or racial harassment.

Sometimes bullying can be as subtle as giving someone the silent treatment or spreading gossip about a colleague. This behaviour can result in the lowering of the victim’s self-esteem or self-confidence. The International Labour Organisation estimates that workplace bullying is better reported in developed economies, as there is greater awareness of the issue. For example, in the UK, an estimated 53% of workers say they have experienced a hostile work environment, and 78% have witnessed bullying in the workplace. In the USA, Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) poll showed that 68% of executives considered “workplace bullying a serious problem”, and almost half of Americans are affected by workplace bullying.

Last year, the Code of Good Practice on the Prevention and Elimination of Harassment in the Workplace came into effect and empowered victims to act against all manner of workplace abuses, including sarcasm, condescending language, and joking at someone else’s expense. The code aims to remove any uncertainty about harassment in the workplace that may have existed before and clearly defines forms of physical, psychological, and sexual harassment to ensure workers are protected from their employers as well as other employees.The code prohibits threats, shaming, hostile teasing, insults, constant negative judgment, and language that is racist, sexist, or LGBTQIA+ phobic. It also addresses cyberbullying.

The development of the code comes after South Africa became the 10th country in the world to ratify the International Labour Organisation’s Violence and Harassment Convention 190, and aims to implement global policies in line with international labour standards.

An Obligation on Employers

The code describes harassment as “unwanted conduct which impairs dignity and which creates a hostile or intimidating work environment for one or more employees”. It applies to all employers and trade unions in all sectors, including the informal sector, and applies to anyone who has dealings with an employer. The code states that bullying involves the abuse of coercive power by an individual or group of individuals in the workplace and may involve aggressive behaviour in which someone repeatedly causes another person injury or discomfort.

It places a duty on employers to do their bit in preventing bullying in the workplace. It also reinforces that employers are under an obligation to take proactive and remedial steps to prevent bullying and other forms of harassment in the workplace. Because bullying is considered a form of harassment, employers are obligated to eliminate it from the workplace to comply with the Employment Equity Act.

The Employment Equity Act prohibits unfair discrimination against an employee, in any employment policy or practice, on one or more grounds, including race, gender, sex, pregnancy, marital status, family responsibility, ethnic or social origin, colour, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, HIV status, conscience, belief, political opinion, culture, language, birth or on any other arbitrary ground. In addition, the Act also provides that “harassment of an employee is a form of unfair discrimination and is prohibited”. Employers who fail to take steps to eliminate bullying within a reasonable period of time after it has been brought to their attention are at risk of being found liable in terms of section 60 of the Act.

In addition, according to the Act, employers are indirectly liable for the wrongful acts of their employees if these acts are committed in the scope of their employment. In the event that an employer finds an employee guilty of harassment such as bullying, they may – depending on the severity of the conduct – dismiss the guilty employee. The Act and code together obligate employers to maintain a bullying-free workplace. This includes taking a decisive, zero-tolerance stand against bullying and having policies and procedures in place to ensure employees respect one another in the workplace. They are also required to carry out a risk assessment of harassment to employees and educate employees on harassment.

Employers are also required to speedily and fairly address any allegations of bullying or harassment. Employers should also assist employees who may be experiencing bullying to report such conduct and ensure that those who do report bullying are not further victimised or subjected to any reprisals.

Sources: Business Tech | Employee Assistance Professionals Association of South Africa EWN | Labour Guide | Workplace Trauma

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