Safe Space at Work

Champagne And Fireworks

All around the country, men and women of conscience take 16 Days of Activism to consider how to make the world a safer place for women and children. Employers have a powerful opportunity to make constructive changes at work too.

Cue the office party! Employees let their hair down. Alcohol flows and the dance floor is ripe with possibilities. An attractive colleague makes a move on another. The outcome seems inevitable as the sun goes down. One crosses one’s fingers and hopes it ends sweetly.

But what happens when the office flirt oversteps the line? What does one do when a person’s “No!” is not respected and violence spills out at work? At what point does it become the employer’s responsibility?

“As an employer, the onus in law rests on you to ensure that violence is not taking place on your premises,” says Michelle Bergh, the coordinator for Safe Space. This organisation focuses on training employers and employees on how to deal with sexual harassment in the workplace.

“If you suspect an employee is being victimised at home and it’s affecting her work performance, enquire with compassion,” says Michelle. “Don’t judge her or give advice. You’re not a therapist. Always refer a distressed woman to available resources in the community for counselling, intervention and protection.”

She continues, “Companies should ensure that a sexual harassment policy is in place with mechanisms of implementation. They need to inform staff about it and explain how it works.”

In Michelle’s experience, healthy office flirtation takes place. “It’s not unusual, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing. When it crosses over to an unwelcome encounter, you need a process in place for laying complaints. Staff need to understand the policy and be empowered to make a complaint,” she said.

Managers and supervisors need to ensure that complaints are not brushed over and ignored. Michelle advises managers to be empathetic and to call in the person doing the harassment. “Address the matter promptly, setting down the boundary for appropriate conduct,” she says.

Safe Space is available to educate employers, giving talks to companies and helpful providing information. Michelle suggests holding an awareness day, putting up posters, and going through the company policy with staff.

For more information contact Safe Space Coordinator, Michelle Bergh on 021 447 1467 or

Community Resources:
Rape Crisis or People Opposing Woman Abuse (POWA)
South African Police Service

Employer Resources:
Safe Space
Make It Our Business

By Liesl Jobson