Photo by Yan Krukov

In the workplace, sexual harassment is the predominant form of GBV experienced. This occurs when a person in a position of authority asks for sexual favours from an employee in exchange for workplace benefits. Some examples of a workplace benefits include a promotion, an increase in pay, and protection from being laid off. It is also considered sexual harassment when a male co-worker or authority figure tells inappropriate jokes, makes threats, or exhibits any form of behaviour that could intimidate a female employee or affect her ability to work. Such behaviours constitute an ethics risk which undermines the ethical culture of the organisation. 

There is, thus, a need for a joint effort to enable workplace-related strategies aimed at the creation of a violence-free workplace in line with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal Five of ‘Achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls’.

Ethical interventions which organisations can employ to deal with GBV in workplaces include the following:

  1. STOP talk shows and DO more. All the responsible corporate citizens of South Africa should let their visible actions do the talking for their commitment to progressively tackling the ongoing issue of GBV. It is vital that corporate leaders take the initiative in guiding active strategies to combat workplace GBV. Board members must break the boardroom-barrier and be the first ones to demonstrate the values of Ubuntu, especially towards female counterparts in and outside of the boardroom. We need prominent male figures to take a responsible and courageous stand and to implement actions against GBV in the workplace. Beyond signing a pledge against GBV, board members must establish clear principles and a war-room against this epidemic. 
  2. Develop an outcome-based, targeted programme against GBV in the workplace. A generic wellness programme has proven inadequate in dealing with the scourge of GBV. Thus, companies must invest in the eradication and prevention of GBV through a targeted approach with measurable outcomes. Such programmes should articulate innovative mechanisms to deal with cyber-related GBV (such as cyberbullying, stalking, etc.). This responsibility should be allocated to an appropriate senior official who has the influence, authority, courage, and zeal to develop, roll-out, and manage this programme.  
  3. Ethics-related policies and fair human capital policies to be in place. To promote an ethical environment where the self-interests are balanced with the interest of the fellow employees, organisations need to have ethically-sound policies in place. These policies must challenge the gender and social stereotypes. To empower those who are in authority to protect vulnerable individuals within an organisation, policies must be based on applicable legislation and regulations, with appropriate disciplinary steps should they be breached. The effectiveness of policies lies in their implementation. Programmes meant to enforce the absence of workplace GBV will inform the procedure(s) of executing these policies; thus, these documents must be coordinated.
  4. Educate and Empower. Policies have a tendency of turning into white elephants as a mere expression of compliance. Management needs to be educated about the phenomenon of GBV as well as their subsequent managerial and moral responsibility regarding the matter. These educational interventions should be included in the above-mentioned targeted programmes. All employees should be empowered through various modes (particularly interactive) of frequent and consistent thematic training focussed on development and awareness about identifying, articulating, and reporting a GBV offence. To be punitive without initiative taking interventions is to create a fear-based culture. Thus, the significance of the ethics officer is to assist the organisation in identifying GBV-related risks and determine how to mitigate them. 
  5. Trust is your Capital – Safeguard and increase it! Develop a trustworthy organisational and ethical culture. The Ethics Institute’s recent survey outcomes regarding why employees do not use their organisation’s independent reporting hotline indicated that employees do not trust that something will be done about the reports and if these are ever addressed, employees fear that they will be victimised for reporting (or whistleblowing on) any impropriety. This is a trust litmus test of how much the leadership is invested in decisively uprooting misconduct (including GBV) in the workplace. It is the responsibility of leadership and management to ensure that their organisations are fully transparent when it comes to GBV policies and procedures in order to safeguard that trust. Organisations should furthermore procure independent and reliable services of a trusted and fully managed hotline which can be made accessible timeously (e.g., in addition to a hotline email, add an app which is available for an employee wishing to anonymously report incidents of impropriety). Upon receiving those reports, appropriate action should be taken, and feedback given within a specific timeframe. In this manner, the organisation’s trust capital will grow exponentially. 
  6. Authentically Care. Create a psychologically safe space for everyone in the organisation (despite their role and level) as GBV affects anyone. Formal and informal awareness is key to the eradication of workplace GBV. The aim of these consultative engagements would be to promote a sense of ownership by all to create active agents of change and to transform the narrative of an undesired state to that of a wholesome culture. It is not enough to simply refer affected victims to the company’s wellness programme (which is usually external) without ensuring that they can feel safe and cared for within the organisation itself. That balance must be struck, or else silo interventions are in vain. The achievement of interventions will be measured by a mentally and physically healthy workforce which is productive and active contributors to the socio-economic well-being of the society at large.
  7. Promote a Gender Mainstreaming Strategy. According to the UN Economic and Social Council, mainstreaming a gender perspective is the process of assessing the implications for people of any planned action, including legislation, policies, or programmes, in all areas and at all levels. Create an environment in which both She and He matter. Female and male employees should not see and treat each other as enemies, but find synergies in relating to one another as they deliver on their professional responsibilities. Create a space where all genders will be treated equally as human capital, thus eliminating potential discrimination and violence.

Employers could be the only redeeming feature for the most vulnerable and could potentially change the trajectory of someone’s destiny by establishing an ethical culture in the organisations. Organisations which have implemented safety measures (particularly for women) and which have demonstrated more equality in terms of gender diversity contribute to building ethical societies. When women are holistically healthy and occupying meaningful roles in the workplace, they become active contributors to the economy, which is beneficial for the financial growth and development impact of countries.


Palesa Mashabane is an Ethics Specialist at The Ethics Institute, where she focusses on public sector ethics.