Sexual harassment at work is a massive problem in Nigeria. Everyday thousands of women (and men, but predominantly women) are constantly harassed by their employers and colleagues. However, not much is done because it has slowly crept in the work culture at these places.
We at LawPàdí feel that this is unacceptable, and that is why we have decided to share this article, in the hopes that it might help someone who is currently facing this issue at work.
What is workplace sexual harassment?
Sexual harassment is any unwanted behaviour of a sexual nature which makes you feel offended, uncomfortable, intimidated or humiliated. There are generally three types of sexual harassment at work:
1. Quid pro quo – this is when your submission to a sexual act or sexual advances is seen as a condition for either getting a job, a promotion, or any other benefit in your job with you would normally have been entitled to, and should be based on merit.
2. Offensive working environment – this is when you receive unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature. It includes things like:
- comments about appearance, body or clothes
- indecent remarks
- Questions or comments about your sex life
- Looking or staring at a person’s body
- Display of sexually explicit material in shared workspaces or sending and sharing sexually explicit material via email
3. Physical abuse – this is when there is direct physical contact with you including any unwarranted touching, brushing their body or any object against yours, hugging, caressing, kissing, sexual assault, and rape.
Steps to follow if you are sexually harassed at work?
If you are sexually assaulted or raped. Then ignore all the steps below and go straight to the Police Station to report the crime. We suggest you go with someone you trust for support for e.g. a family member or you can contact us on email@example.com and we can put you in touch with support groups that can assist.
- Step 1 – Confront the Person
In some instances, the person harassing you might not be aware that they are causing offence. They might feel that the acts or words that you find offensive is just banter or harmless flirting. That is why it is important to address it firmly and directly. Inform the person that you find the action or words offensive and you would like them to stop, and that if the act continues you will have no choice but to report it. In some cases, this will stop the harassment, however if this doesn’t then you have at least put the person on notice. You should only confront the person if you feel it is safe to do so, victims of physical abuse should report immediately.
- Step 2 – Document it
If the person refuses to stop after you confront them, then you need to begin to build a case by gathering evidence. Unfortunately, in most cases of sexual harassment it is one person’s words against the other, and so you must think ahead and ensure that you are able to back up any allegations you make when you report the person.
Collect as much detailed evidence as possible about the harassment including any offensive letters, photographs, cards, or notes you receive. If it is offensive material shared on public places, take photos of the offensive material. Keep a detailed journal about incidents of harassment, you should include the names of everyone involved, what happened, and where and when it took place. If anyone else saw or heard the harassment, note that as well. Apart from documenting the actions, you need to document the effect it had on you, on your psyche, your job performance, your health etc.
It is also important that you begin to make copies of any work performance evaluations or letters of commendation you receive from your supervisors. In some unfortunate cases when someone makes an allegation of sexual harassment, they begin to be victimized by the supervisors/employers and a common allegation they use to cover this victimization is ‘incompetence’. You need to be able to prove that you are a competent worker, and any victimization which you are faced with e.g. transfer, demotion or even dismissal on the flimsy excuse of poor performance is actually as a result of your complaint.
- Step 3- Report It
If you work in a well-structured company, the chances are that there is an employee handbook that lays out the procedure to follow in order to make a complaint against an employee. Follow the process laid out.
You must ensure that you inform your supervisor and the Human Resources (HR) department. If your supervisor is the person you are complaining about, then you should report to your supervisor’s supervisor.
In your complaint, provide them with all the information you have gathered, and wait for them to address the issue. Unfortunately, not all sexual harassment will lead to immediate dismissal, unless it is serious enough to constitute gross misconduct e.g. physical abuse. What reporting does is that it starts the disciplinary process where the alleged harasser will be given an opportunity to defend himself. This is why it is important that you have followed Step 1 and Step 2 above, so he/she has not much of a defence.
Step 3a – Quit
Unfortunately, in Nigeria, very few companies are set up with a proper HR system for making complaints. In actual fact a lot of them are one man businesses where the person who is the alleged harasser is actually the owner of the business. If unfortunately, this is your situation, you should quit. There is no point reporting to someone who is the person you are complaining about. If you followed Step 1 and the person still continued harassing you, it is unlikely you will get a favourable outcome.
However, that doesn’t mean that you don’t have any legal recourse. Please jump to Step 6 below.
- Step 4 – Monitor
After the internal disciplinary process has run its course, you need to monitor the situation. Has there been a change? Is the person still harassing you? Have it moved from harassing to victimisation?
This will determine what further step you should take.
- If the person has stopped harassing you, then that’s great news. You can stop here
- If the person has stopped harassing you, but then started victimising you, then you should report this situation to HR, this time not as harassment but as victimisation.
- If HR has refused to take any action against the person, or has decided that you have no case, then you should move to step 5 below
Appropriate outcomes may include your employer issuing a warning or some form of disciplinary action to the harasser, transferring the harasser or you the victim (in some circumstances), subjecting the harasser to training on how to behave in a work environment, or in some cases dismissal.
- Step 5 – Quit
If you are at this stage, then unfortunately it would seem that all steps above have failed and there is only one option left, to quit. You should not have to work in an environment where you do not feel comfortable and you feel oppressed constantly.
- Step 6 – Get Legal Assistance
You should contact a lawyer to assist you. At LawPàdí due to our commitment to stamp out sexual harassment in the workplace, we will arrange for free legal advice and action on your behalf if you require it. You can contact us here at firstname.lastname@example.org
There are criminal law options and civil law options available. Sexual harassment is a crime in Nigeria, and at any point in the steps above you can involve the police in the matter, but we advise that you do so only after Step 2 where you have had a chance to document the evidence which you will need.
If you are forced to resign or you resign on your own, you can sue the company for the harassment. Under Nigerian law, the National Industrial Court is the special court that has jurisdiction to hear cases of sexual harassment at work. You can sue the employee and the company for the harassment (the employer can be held vicariously liable for the acts of their employee- the person who is harassing you, especially if it is shown they have not taken any steps to protect you from the harassment).
You can also sue the, for constructive dismissal – this basically means that they have forced you to resign due to making the office environment intolerable for you, therefore giving you no choice but to resign.
Remedies which the court can grant include back pay or reinstatement (if you were forced to resign); hiring or promotion (if it was quid pro quo harassment); compensatory damages (emotional pain and suffering); punitive damages (damages to punish the employer) etc.
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We hope you have found this information helpful. Please note that this information is provided for general informational purposes only and is not intended to be legal advice. No lawyer-client relationship is formed nor should any such relationship be implied. This answer is not intended to substitute for the advice of a qualified lawyer. If you require legal advice, please consult with a qualified lawyer.