Sahara loses sexual harassment appeal

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Pretoria - The Gupta family-owned company, Sahara Computers Ltd, lost its appeal to have a judgment overturned in which the company was ordered to pay R60 000 in damages to a former employee who was sexually harassed at work by a superior.

The North Gauteng High Court ordered in November 2010 that the company was liable to pay the damages to a former clerk who worked for Sahara for three and a half years before resigning.

Judge Ben du Plessis found the company did not adequately address the complaints by its employee.

Her line manager did not report the matter immediately after she first complained and warned her the man was “well-connected” and she could lose her job instead.

When the harassment continued, she complained to the company’s human resources (HR) department.

A disciplinary hearing was held, the man admitted he was “harsh or rude” towards her and he was issued with a final warning.

Judge Du Plessis said the company acted reasonably after she reported the matter, but the issue should have been addressed earlier, when she first reported it to her line manager.

The judge said the harassment could have been stopped had he reported it earlier to HR.

Sahara argued that the allegations were unsubstantiated at first and there was no written complaint before the woman headed to HR.

Judge du Plessis, in granting leave to appeal before a full bench of three judges, said the case contained important issues which could have a bearing on similar cases.

The three judges supported Judge Du Plessis’s finding. On their behalf Judge TA Maumela said Sahara did not dispute the sexual harassment as the company held a disciplinary hearing and imposed a sanction on him. But Sahara “overly delayed” acting to prevent him from continuing his unacceptable behaviour.

Judge Maumela said after the woman reported the man’s conduct to her line manager, it took him “forever” to do anything meaningful.

“He was too preoccupied with stepping too carefully, knowing the man was well-connected in the company. The applicant (Sahara) merely instituted disciplinary proceedings, issued a final written notice and left the rest to fate as to what happened between the respondent (the complainant) and the man. That is why he could still perpetrate his offensive conduct.”

Judge Maumela said counsel for Sahara also said the woman’s damages claim should not succeed, as a psychologist did not find her to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder due to her ordeal. But, he added, it must be borne in mind that another psychologist recommended treatment for the woman.

“That treatment shall come at a price,” he said in confirming the earlier order that she should receive R60 000 as compensation.

The woman earlier told the court the harassment began five months after she started working for Sahara. The man, among other things, demanded sex from her, he tried to touch her private parts while she was in her office and he attempted to pour water over her private parts.

When she tried to protest, he held out his phone and told her to “dare call” his supervisors, as he was well-connected and nothing would happen to him.

Her line manager, while also too afraid to act, promised to protect her while in her office.

But according to the woman things got out of hand and she turned to HR herself. She said she thought he would be fired, but following the written warning against him, she felt threatened whenever she met him at work.

She resigned later due to “personal reasons”.

Pretoria News



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