It’s time the harassment stopped
The past few months have really affected me. Every day, the news media have screamed our rapes, murders and brutal attacks on women and children. I have just spent some time away from home, and I find that the same issues affect women in the United States.
By what I am about to say, I hope to get my fellow men and leaders to listen, to give a message of hope to young women by telling the stories of those who have stood up and to get our organisations and institutions to create an environment in which women can thrive and succeed without the horror of discrimination, or, even worse, sexual harassment.
I want to use this opportunity to tell the stories of women both here, in South Africa, and in the United States, who have had to deal with sexual harassment, abuse and discrimination, I hope their stories will inspire all of us to stand up against all forms of sexual harassment, regardless of the prominence, power or wealth of the perpetrator.
Winning despite the odds
Let me start with the story of Gretchen Carlson, who took on Fox News and won.
During my visit to the USA, the most prominent story about an attack on a woman was Gretchen’s. A former Miss USA and Fox News Presenter, she took on the powerful CEO of Fox News, Roger Ailes, in a case of sexual harassment. Roger Ailes was the mastermind and brains behind the highly rated Fox News organisation and is one of the most powerful men the USA. He has connections with politicians, businesses people and celebrities.
When Gretchen sued Fox News, almost all the high powered Fox News presenters sided with Roger Ailes, and most Fox News funders, sponsors, and viewers saw this as Gretchen’s revenge for being fired. The case made headlines everywhere and the Fox News media machinery defended Roger Ailes and the Fox News Company.
However, when the parent company of Fox News, 21st Century Fox, instituted an investigation, they found Gretchen’s allegations to be true and settled the case for $20m. Roger Ailes, the founder and powerful boss of Fox News, was fired and Fox News issued a public apology to Gretchen.
Shortly, thereafter more women came out and accused Fox News’s star presenter, Bill O’Reilly of sexual harassment. His powerful fan base rallied around him and his powerful friends, including Donald Trump, defended him. In a stunning victory for women, the untouchable Bill O’Reilly was booted out as some sponsors and advertisers demanded action and others deserted Fox News.
Fox isn’t alone: Allegations of pervasive sexual harassment also recently surfaced at Uber and Sterling Jewellers, which owns the Kay, Jared and Zales chains.
Counteracting corporate inaction
At Uber, Susan Fowler, a brilliant young engineer, excelled in her work, but left because of a culture of sexual harassment and inaction by the HR Department and her line managers.
Very early in her Uber career, her manager harassed her over the company chat line. She reported this behaviour to the HR team. Their response was that it was his first offence and he was a great performer in the team. She was offered an opportunity to work in other teams. She later found out that other young women engineers had been harassed by the same person.
When they took up the matter again with the HR people, they again took the side of the abuser. They made Susan the scapegoat and labelled her a trouble-maker.
Susan resigned from Uber and wrote a blog (read more on https://www.susanjfowler.com/blog), in which she described in detail repeat incidents of gender-based harassment and discrimination (all allegedly hushed up and/or denied by company management at the time). The blog went viral and more women related their terrible Uber experiences.
Uber had to respond. It hired outside counsel to investigate 215 harassment complaints that it received through its anonymous hotline. The investigator determined that more than 100 of them were valid. As a result of the investigation, and the huge backlash against Uber, Travis Kalanick, the CEO, resigned and at least 20 employees lost their jobs, including several at senior level.
Uber also hired a second team of lawyers – which included former US Attorney General Eric Holder – to perform a further investigation of the company’s culture and how it could be improved. Attorney Holder and his colleagues submitted recommendations to Uber, and later Uber announced that it agreed with the recommendations and would implement them. Those recommendations focus on four prevailing themes:
- Tone at the top,
- Transformation, and
Susan’s courageous actions and powerful blog brought huge changes at Uber.
In the entertainment world, there have also been heartening developments among the many scandals. One such is the sexual assault case that singer-songwriter Taylor Swift, winner of several Grammy awards, just won against former American DJ David Mueller. He was found guilty of putting his hand up her skirt and grabbing her bum at a meet-and-greet.
The Colorado court awarded Taylor the $1 in damages that she sued for by the Colorado court. The payout may be small, but its symbolic significance is huge. This court case demonstrates once and for all that a woman is never to blame when a man touches her body without her permission.
Writing in Huffington Post, Rachel Moss argued, “In delegitimising Mueller’s lawsuit, Swift has reminded the world to call bullshit on the horrendous culture of victim-blaming that continues to prevail, both within courts and wider society. Just as she played no part in Mueller’s firing, no woman can ever blamed when a man assaults her, regardless of what she is wearing or how much she has drank (sic).”
Rachel argues strongly that Swift’s unflinching testimony is also a reminder that standing up to sexual assault is nothing to be ashamed of. She recounts her own experience, “ I have lost count of the amount of times I’ve been groped on a night out – both by complete strangers and men in my own friendship group – but felt under pressure to laugh it off like one of the lads. When it happens, there’s a split second when you must decide whether to hit back and risk being labelled as an ‘angry feminist’, or try to forget about it and enjoy your night.”
In our own society, in our own institutions and organisations, there are men, like David, who will try to make you feel guilty for standing up to groping, but there is no shame in calling out sexism.
Rachel adds that groping isn’t something to be taken lightly and is part of a wider issue of how women are seen and treated in society. She concludes: “When a man forces himself upon you, he is failing to see you as an equal being. When he beelines for your ass or breasts, he’s buying into the agenda that a woman’s only value is her sexualised body. When he touches you without your permission, he is perpetuating the fear that women feel Every. Damn. Day.”
Persisting with courage
Which brings me to the courage of Liza Dippenaar, which shaped my outlook on women abuse:
In my previous role at Standard Bank I was responsible for 13 000 staff members, the majority of whom were women. I received a lot of letters and emails from employees on a range of issues. Of these hundreds of letters, none touched me more than Liza’s letter.
She wrote to me in 2005, telling me that she was brutally abused by her husband over a long time. It got so bad that he would go into the branch, beat her up and humiliate her in front of customers and other employees. She wrote: “Things became so bad that I dreaded going to work. Staying at home was not an option, as the beatings would continue. After pressure from management because of the impact of the abuse on customers and employees, I chose to leave the bank. This was a huge decision after more than 18 years of loyal service.”
Unfortunately, that was the final straw for her husband. He severely assaulted her and almost killed her. He was sentenced to five years in jail for assault and attempted murder and released after six months.
Liza continued: “After this, I changed my name, moved to a different address and set about rebuilding my life. I applied for a job in the bank, but was told that, since I had left, the rules had changed. Because I did not have a matric, I could not be taken back.” She concluded: “Could you please help me, Mr Mali? I have two children and I am battling to make ends meet. I did not leave the bank out of choice; I was forced to by circumstances way beyond my control.”
This was one of the most shameful episodes of my banking career, because we as an organisation had clearly failed this employee in her hour of need. However, I am not, for one moment, passing judgment on her managers or colleagues. All I’m pointing out is that, as an institution, we could not just wash our hands and play no part in firstly protecting this employee, and secondly, welcoming her back and supporting her when she had fought alone to escape her husband’s murderous intentions. We made arrangements with one of our managers, Annette Schonken, for Liza to be taken on board in one of our centres in Pretoria. Annette’s condition was that Liza should complete her matric.
Three years later, I received this email from Liza:
“Dear Mr Mali, you may not remember me. Through your help, I was employed by Ms Annette Schonken at the BFC after recovering from an abusive relationship. I am happy and proud to inform you that I passed my matric at the age of 48 years. I would like to invite you to my graduation party at my home. Thank you for changing my life. God bless.”
I found this message so moving and inspiring. This woman, who had placed the welfare of customers, colleagues and the bank above her own; who had endured pain, suffering and humiliation at the hands of her husband and who had been rejected by her beloved Standard Bank; had, against all odds, triumphed against adversity. Liza had found her voice and she spoke clearly and loudly that her destiny is in her own hands. I went to her home and to attend a very moving ceremony with her children and her mother, celebrating her achievement and resilience.
Last week, I received another email from Liza, she had completed another qualification, her message was simple, yet powerful, “Good Day Mr Mali. Just needed to share this with you and say thanks again.”
Liza is the type of bold and courageous woman that we should celebrate, who against all odds continue to do their best for themselves and their children under the most difficult conditions. Liza epitomises the spirit and resilience of thousands of women. Every day, these women put all their domestic problems behind them to serve customers. They hide their pain and frustration to smile at customers. They overcome their own financial difficulties to sell products, services and solutions to customers that they personally may not be able to afford. They suppress their longing for their own children to make the children of customers happy. The makeup they wear sometimes covers bruises and abrasions from assault and humiliation.
I think these women’s stories contain important lessons for companies and organisations.
One of these lessons is that sexism and sexual harassment are rampant in Africa and South Africa’s private and public sectors. Female employees have to endure being pressed to trade sexual favours for advancement, explicit sex talk, groping and more every single day.
Leaders who view sexual harassment as an HR problem or as a cost to the organisation should recognise that failing to do the right thing or create the right gender sensitive culture may result in significant business risks, a tarnished reputation, a plunge in share price, a loss of customers or a shakeup of the leadership team.
Starting at the beginning
A culture of harassment starts at the top. Bosses have to understand the meaning of, and be committed to, equal treatment of men and women. They must recognise that wider diversity among employees requires greater sensitivity, tolerance and respect for others. Moreover, they must realise that a leader – whether in the workplace or in politics – cannot simply say whatever may come to mind without consequences. Leaders must be able to filter their thoughts before those thoughts emerge as hurtful, intolerant or prurient words.
Company management must recognise that, if it tolerates a culture of harassment, a culture of intolerance, or a culture where sexual banter or sexist comments are permitted, then there will be fallout when today’s generation of employees – a generation that does not expect to have to put up with such behaviour – pushes back. How management responds to that pushback will say much about the culture of the business.
When a company protects leaders or employees who engage in harassing or sexist behaviour, the problem remains in place and the threat of future bad acts – with attendant legal exposure – remains. The protected perpetrator feels empowered to repeat his bad behaviour – whether it is sending sexually explicit emails, making sexist or racist comments to employees, or worse. At the very least, it leads to the departure of valuable employees. At worst, it leads to legal claims and reputational damage.
The wound that was inflicted by the harassment remains open and festering. Employees see that the company tolerates unacceptable conduct by its most powerful executives. This creates a poisonous, distrustful work environment, which in turn affects morale, productivity, and eventually, profitability. The lesson here is that doing the right thing will actually result in greater profits than doing nothing.
Given that its results are so devastating, you may wonder why people find it so difficult to report sexual harassment.
Prof Stefanie K Johnson has deeply pondered this question She has widely researched why so few victims and observers report sexual harassment. For instance, she investigated why many Fox employees were initially so reluctant to stand up for Gretchen Carlson. Her research and interviews exposed three possible reasons:
- Fear of retaliation,
- the bystander effect, and
- A masculine culture that permits sexual harassment.
First, lets examine the fear of retaliation.
Many of the women Prof Johnson interviewed said they did not report harassment against themselves or others because of fear of retaliation by the harasser or the organisation. According to Prof Johnson, research has found that sexual harassment can be trivialised by organisations or result in hostility and retaliation against the victim. Susan Fowler’s supports this. HR and line managers first trivialised her experience. Through lies and half-truths, they hoped to make the matter go away. The matter did not end there: The organisation became hostile to her, affecting her ability to join teams and be part of development programmes. It finally reflected on her performance.
So, these fears are real and we all have to stop our hurtful and ignorant comments, such as, “Why did she not leave?” “Why did she not report it earlier?” “Why did she not speak out?” Some of these may be well meaning questions, but the reality of both public and private sector hierarchy is that it is hard, lonely, costly and humiliating to take on the might of an organisation on issues such as bullying, sexual harassment, racism, victimisation or favouritism.
In fact, the perpetrators sometimes carry on brazenly because they think that the victim will find it hard to stand up and go through the whole investigation process. In addition to this, the people complained against are usually very powerful, highly regarded, much prized and appreciated or have great reputations in their organisations or the community.
In the South African context, Norton Rose Fulbright labour lawyer Karen Ainslie argues that another reason why these matters are not frequently reported is that, if sexual harassment matters are not resolved at the workplace, they have to be dealt with by the Labour Court. This means full-blown litigation and legal fees for employees, who would not necessarily be able to afford attorneys.
She also points out that Labour Court litigation takes a while to be finalised. In the meantime, the employee would, nine out of 10 times, still be in the employer’s employ. This clearly leads to an uncomfortable relationship between the employee and the employer.
Yet, difficult as this may be, lonely as it may be, challenging as it may be, we cannot allow such vile behaviour to go unpunished. We must support women against all forms of harassment.
Now, let’s move on to the bystander effect.
Prof Johnson lists it as another major reason that women may fail to speak out against sexual harassment. The bystander effect results in both men and women being less likely to help a victim when others are also present.
She argues that the bystander effect occurs for two reasons. Firstly, diffusion of responsibility: If others are present, individuals may feel that other observers are responsible for intervening. Secondly, social influence: Bystanders observe others’ behaviour to determine the correct behaviour. So if no one is intervening, then that seems to be the correct behaviour. People abide by the status quo.
This can even give the appearance that observers condone the behaviour. In many cases, people who were observers or victims of sexual harassment would not be willing to be the first to come out, fearing either the stigma, the backlash or not being believed; but they would have the courage to stand up were another to report the matter.
This is quite prevalent in major sexual harassment cases, where people come out to tell their stories and pain after the first person comes out against the perpetrator.
Some people bury their pain for decades. This is evident in the recent scandals involving Bob Hewitt, Donald Trump, Bill Cosby, and a Catholic priest.
We must create a conducive atmosphere for both those who are victims and those who are witnesses to sexual harassment, so that they feel able to report and expose this horrible form of abuse in our families, among friends, in the work place and at our institutions of higher learning.
The third factor that Prof Johnson identified is a masculine culture or a highly male-dominated organisation.
She argues further that, at the same time, women who want to be part of the high-status group may play along with sexual harassment because they do not want to be further alienated from the high-status group (men). Women may even start to adopt the same behaviours as men to fit in and be “one of the guys.”
This creates an irony. Women may be ignoring or downplaying sexual harassment to gain access to the boys’ club, while men are using sexual harassment to keep women out.
The sadness inherent in many of the stories I have highlighted is that some of the HR and line managers who ignored sexual harassment complaints are women. All of us must challenge and change the masculine culture that provides fertile ground for sexual discrimination, sexual harassment and broader sexism.
Removing the fear
Which brings me to ask how we can remove the fear. How do we make it less scary to report sexual harassment? I think there are a few ways organisations can be proactive about encouraging people to speak up when they see something wrong, and this may go a long way toward decreasing levels of sexual harassment.
Firstly, it is important to provide employees with bystander training, to empower them with knowledge of what to do if they directly observe or are informed about sexual harassment.
The aim of such training is to understand the critical four steps:
- Make observers aware of the problem so they can identify it when they see it;
- Teach observers that help should always be given;
- Increase the accountability of observers so they know that they are responsible to help; and
- Inform observers of the process for intervening.
Secondly, organisations should develop much more responsive and far clearer HR reporting systems, through which women can report observations and experiences of sexual harassment. These processes need to reduce risks of retaliation or gossip. Most importantly, they must reduce the fear of reporting. The Society for Human Resource Management recommends having clear definitions of what constitutes harassment, including examples of prohibited conduct, explaining how victims and viewers of harassment should respond to and report harassment, outlining how HR should handle the process, and expressing what disciplinary measures should be followed.
What is absolutely vital is that all complaints should be treated as confidential.
How many organisations can honestly say that these five steps are clearly outlined? We need ALL organisations to adopt and publicise these steps.
I strongly believe that there is a need to totally overhaul the thinking and mindset of the HR fraternity on the subject of all forms of discrimination, but especially sexual harassment. Our organisations’ leaders and our HR teams need to implement policies to protect their employees from abuse and discrimination. This demands robust HR teams that investigate every claim or complaint, and let nothing – absolutely nothing – fall through the cracks.
HR should also encourage and protect anonymity, as victims may be reluctant to come forward for fear that they could worsen an already awful situation.
In some cases, there should be a fair, independent investigation beyond the company’s own HR process. This should be the case if the HR team is implicated, if senior executives are involved or if there are a number of complaints.
Boosting the trend
We need to reach a situation where there are more stories like the ones I am about to relate, which give women hope.
Prof vs colleagues
Similarly, Wits University fired Professor Mtendeweka Mhango for sexually harassing three female colleagues.
Prof Mhango, a deputy head at Wits University’s Law Faculty, was dismissed with immediate effect after an independent panel found him guilty of sexually harassing three of his female colleagues. He used his position to try to solicit sexual favours.
Wits Vice-Chancellor Adam Habib said: “As a result and as per our policy, we’ve informed the individual that he’s to be dismissed, forthwith.”
Habib emphasised that the university does not condone any form of gender-based harm, saying: “As a public institution, we have to be seen to be demonstrating firmly in this regard.”
He made it clear that the university wants to lead by example and address gender-based harm on its campuses.
The women at the centre of the sexual harassment case described their ordeal, saying they would sometimes lock their office doors so Prof Mhango wouldn’t know they were at work. Sometimes, they would take care not to arrive for Wits committee meetings too early, just in case Mhango was there first.
They said they remained silent because they believed they were the only ones who were being sexually harassed by the senior law academic. They said they decided speak out and report the matter because it had become a critical concern for women beyond just the three of them.
Diplomat vs ambassador – with a Minister thrown in for good measure
It is just as inspiring to me that Lara Swart won her sexual harassment case against both the late Mr Norman Mashabane and the former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dr Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma.
Her courage and resilience resulted in a High Court ruling that Ambassador Mashabane should have been fired for sexual harassment. Judge Jerry Shongwe, the deputy judge president of the High Court in Pretoria, ruled in favour of her application to review the decision by Foreign Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma in April 2004.
The Minister had decided to let the ambassador off the hook on sexual harassment charges after he had been found guilty of by a departmental disciplinary hearing. Judge Shongwe set aside the ambassador’s appeal against his dismissal for sexual harassment of Lara, adding that the Minister’s decision would be replaced with the following: “The appeal is dismissed. The finding of guilt on three charges of sexual harassment and the sanction of dismissal are confirmed.” The Minister was ordered to pay Lara’s legal costs, estimated to be as high as R500 000.
Describing her ordeal, Lara said: “It’s been a nightmare. Now I just want to get on with my life and concentrate on my career in the department. This incident has been extremely painful… it’s been hanging over me and my family for so long.”
She added that she could not have got through the ordeal without the support of her husband and family.
“As a woman, there are certain things we can and must do when we are wronged. Many times, we ask ourselves whether it was all worth it,” she said.
“Today, I say yes, because I am very pleased with the outcome. I feel like a new person. It shows that, if you believe in putting right an injustice, you can only do so by pursuing the matter by using the right channels, no matter how long it takes.” She said she was pleased with the support of her employers, the Department of Foreign Affairs.
She added that the ruling gives women hope that our system is working. “Many victims of sexual harassment wonder whether it is worth pursuing charges against their perpetrators,” she said. “But they may now say: ‘See what Lara Swart has done’, and follow my example. If we don’t speak out, things will continue,” she warned.
Lara’s case is one of those that proves harassment is far too often ignored or condoned. In 2001, at least six Indonesian women laid several cases of sexual harassment against the ambassador. In the charge sheet before the disciplinary hearing, he was alleged to have had sex with a government employee in the back seat of a chauffeur-driven car; to have patted a domestic worker on the behind while she was doing the dishes; and to have showed embassy staff members pornographic pictures. Gender activists monitoring the case said at the time that it was ironic that the disgraced ambassador was being protected by Dr Dlamini-Zuma, a woman.
Although the ambassador – whose wife Maite Nkoana-Mashabane was the former high commissioner to India and is the MEC for local government and housing in Limpopo – was found guilty on 21 counts of sexual harassment, he remained in his post pending an appeal. It was during the appeal that the incident involving Lara took place. Lara lodged a complaint of sexual harassment after he forcibly kissed and groped her at a function at his Residence.
In November 2003, Mxolisi Nkosi, the presiding officer of the disciplinary inquiry, informed the Ambassador of his dismissal after being found guilty of acts of sexual harassment against Lara. In papers before the court, Norman boasted to staff at the embassy that nobody could take action him because President Thabo Mbeki had appointed him, and that he would never have sex with a white woman. “It’s disgusting,” he is alleged to have said.
It was in April 2004 that Dr Dlamini-Zuma upheld his appeal against his dismissal for misconduct. This is the decision that Lara took to court, thus achieving vindication.
Taking it personally
Thank you allowing me to relate these stories and the thoughts they have provoked: My own, and those of various victims and experts in the sphere.
I would like to leave you with these thoughts: Sexual harassment is a horrible and humiliating experience that violates the rights and dignity of many women.
It has no place in our institutions or our organisations. We need to raise awareness of this scourge beyond August, Women’s Month. We must focus on it and raise the visibility of this issue as we do for rape, abuse and violence against women.
Too many women currently suffer in silence at work as powerful people abuse their positions to solicit sexual favours in both the private and public sectors. This behaviour has to be exposed and stopped. We must hold those responsible to account, regardless of their status, wealth or political connections.
What does this scourge say of us as people, and as men if we don’t? What kind of organisation are we building if we let this go unchecked? These are our daughters, our wives, our girlfriends, our partners, our sisters and our mothers, the workplace cannot be a place of fear for them because of the actions of those who sexually harass them. Our silence, as both men and women will mean we are complicit.
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