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SA has enacted labour legislation aimed at protecting employee workplace rights. However, employees continue to suffer injustices and vulnerability when these rights are violated.

In April a substantial award was made to a municipal employee who had been sexually harassed by her manager in 2009. At the time of the assault the municipality did not have a sexual harassment policy in place as was required by law.

This led to the victim having to continue working in the same environment as the perpetrator. The situation became too much for the victim, who eventually resigned in 2010.

And the perpetrator? He was found guilty, punished with two weeks suspension and remains on the payroll of the municipality.

The financial award made in the case described above will never compensate for the psychological and emotional toll that the employee has endured. Money will also not erase the pain of the family of the restaurant employee who died in May after allegedly being forced to attend work, despite calling in sick.

In addition to allegations of coercion and doubt being cast on her state of health, it was reported that a fear of losing her job drove the mother of two to comply with the demand. Although separated by some 12 years, both incidents are stark reminders of how the rights of employees continue to be violated, despite the existence of protective labour legislation.

The human resource management function has a critical role to play in upholding and promoting employee rights. This role may be described as that of employee advocate.

As an employee advocate HR must be seen to stand up for employees, become their voice and ensure they are consistently and fairly treated by management.

So how can HR become the employee advocate in promoting workplace rights? HR needs to guarantee that certain building blocks are in place.

These building blocks create knowledge and awareness of what is right, what needs to be done, and how transgressions will be dealt with.

The first building block is to ensure that policies and procedures are in place to deal with instances in which employees believe that their rights have been, are being, or will be violated. However, this is insufficient. While companies may have policies, what may transpire in practice is a different story.

As an example, there are times when transgressions are “swept under the carpet”. This is done for various misguided and, quite frankly, unethical reasons.

These may include the elevated position or power of the transgressor (we can’t take her on) or the contribution of the transgressor to the bottom line (we can’t afford to lose him).

Another example is where policy and procedure are followed, but the nature of the sanction imposed on the perpetrator is seen as minor in relation to the rights violation. This sends a message to employees that rights violations are not taken seriously.

To avoid these scenarios HR needs to become the voice of employees and stand up when consistency and fairness do not prevail.

Sometimes this means standing up to powerful and well-networked organisational stakeholders and this requires that additional building blocks are in place.

The second building block is to ensure that all managers and employees are trained in the understanding and application of relevant policies and procedures. This training should also create a clear awareness of what constitutes workplace rights violations and sensitise as to the nature and extent of these violations.

It makes it easier to address issues that could involve violations if it is clear what these violations entail.

Thereafter it is important to add to the people management skills of managers. This training includes managing for inclusivity, communication and active listening skills.

Sensitisation training in terms of gender, race and power imbalances is also important. Through this training, managers will become better able to identify and deal with rights violations.

The following important building block is that of HR facilitating critical conversations and discussions on workplace rights, employee concerns in this regard, and the individual and organisational consequences of workplace rights violations.

These conversations should actively involve important stakeholders, such as management and trade union representatives, with the aim of driving an organisational culture in which workplace violations are not tolerated.

The final element pertains to the responsibility of HR to include issues of existing or potential employee rights violations in management meeting agendas.

An employee advocate stands up and becomes the voice of employees.

By using the building blocks described above, HR creates a platform to do so. In this way HR can be seen to actively and proactively address issues of concern in relation to employee workplace rights.

This article appeared in The Herald (South Africa) on 13 Jul 2021 written by Dr Bridget de Villiers and Ms Mandisa Mavuso - lecturers in the Department of Human Resource Management, Faculty of Business and Economic Sciences at Nelson Mandela University. The views and opinions expressed in this article represent those of the authors.



Contact information
Dr Bridget De Villiers
Tel: 27 42 504 3885