Compliment or sexual harassment?

07 August 2014 - 02:01 By Aarti J Narsee
Image: Supplied

Unwelcome groping, or a promise of a better job in return for a kiss, clearly amount to sexual harassment. But what about comments like "Oh wow, you look so pretty, I can't even concentrate", or "You look sexy today"?

The line between a compliment and sexual harassment is a fine one and overstepping it might affect a company's bottom line, said Professor Bonita Meyersfeld, director of the Centre for Applied Legal Studies, at Wits University.

Meyersfeld was speaking at the annual Labour Law Conference, in Johannesburg yesterday.

She said sexual harassment went beyond inappropriate sexual advances and included what she called "othering".

This, she said, included "intimidation that highlights gender, culture, religion or race". She said it also encompassed remarks that might seem to be compliments but were made based on gender, for example.

Wits University's sexual harassment office has been dealing with a number of harassment cases involving students, and students and lecturers, she said.

The new office had come across a "constant stream of disturbing cases" since it opened in February.

Meyersfeld said companies should take sexual harassment as seriously as fraud and other crimes at the workplace.

She said failing to deal with harassment could be costly in terms of productivity.

"We need to think of sexual harassment as an act that impedes our ability to work," she said.