Sarcasm, eye-rolling and gossip can now spell trouble at work

Labour department gazettes code of good practice aimed at eliminating workplace harassment.

While South Africa has long-standing laws regarding equity in the workplace through the Employment Equity Act and other regulations, the new code of practice takes things a step further by aiming to “completely eliminate all forms of harassment” in the workplace.

The new code of practice defines harassment as unwanted conduct that impairs dignity. It further states that it includes conduct that creates a hostile or intimidating work environment for one or more employees or is calculated to, or has the effect of, inducing submission by actual or threatened adverse consequences.

It outlines that: “Harassment includes violence, physical abuse, psychological abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, gender-based abuse and racial abuse. It includes the use of physical force or power, whether threatened or actual, against another person or against a group or community.”

Some of these types of harassment are obvious – such as physical force, racist remarks or sexual advances – however the code of practice also highlights a much wider range of indirect actions which can be seen as harassment.

The Code says that, “Passive-aggressive or covert harassment may include negative gossip or jokes at someone else’s expense, sarcasm, condescending eye-contact [such as eye-rolling], facial expressions/gestures, mimicking to cause ridicule, ‘invisible’ treatment, marginalisation, social and professional exclusion, and deliberate sabotage.”

The code further identifies the steps that employers must take to eliminate harassment, including the development and implementation of policies, procedures and practices that will lead to the creation of workplaces that are free from harassment.

Employment law experts at commercial law firm Cliffe Dekker Hofmeyr (CDH) say that the code makes room for the reality that many continue to work from home and utilise technology to communicate with colleagues and clients, with new definitions added around cyber-bullying.

The legal experts say there is no indication of when the code will be implemented, but employers should consider a review of their internal policies and procedures in respect of violence and harassment in the workplace to ensure all employees, and others in the world of work, are protected and to protect themselves from the rule of vicarious liability.