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By Karen Rutter

Tanya Groenewald was thoroughly enjoying her job as a graphic designer for a large marketing company. “I studied graphic design at Technikon, and this was my second job, after starting with a small firm when I finished my diploma,” she says. She works in a team of designers and copywriters, who liaise closely with the marketing consultants.

“I love doing design – it’s exciting and fresh and creative. And it’s great to work with other people who are just as keen,” she says. At 23 years old, Tanya sees her goals as getting “really good at design, learning business skills, and hopefully starting my own design firm one day”.

She works in a large, open-plan office in the middle of Cape Town, where she can bounce ideas with colleagues and share skills and information. “It’s a cool environment,” she smiles. Tanya’s design campaigns include work for large retail companies, a gym chain, some banks and a range of smaller clients. 

The problem started when a new member joined their design team – and they started working on a new campaign.

Uncomfortable Situation

“Marlon (not his real name) was really friendly,” says Tanya. “And he was good at what he did.” Their new client was a wine label, and they were tasked with designing an ad campaign for the brand.

“Marlon was always cracking jokes. Sometimes I thought they were a bit off – a bit rude, really, especially about women. But I said nothing, because I didn’t want to be a spoil sport,” says Tanya.

One afternoon, the client delivered a case of their wine products for the team to taste. “For inspiration, they said,” reports Tanya. The design team stayed late after work to sip a few glasses. “I noticed that Marlon was looking at me a lot. After a few glasses, he came and stood next to me and put his arm around me. I didn’t feel comfortable, so I moved away, but he followed me,” says Tanya.

Not wanting to make a scene, she made an excuse to go to the bathroom. The rest of the office floor was deserted except for their team, who were in a small corner. “The next thing I knew, Marlon had pushed into the women’s bathroom and was trying to kiss me,” says Tanya.

“I was shocked and angry. I pushed him away and ran downstairs, and phoned my brother to come and pick me up,” says Tanya.

Taking Action

The next day at the office, Marlon pretended nothing had happened. But over the next couple of days, every time he came to Tanya’s desk he would put his arm around her, or squeeze her hand. When she pulled away, he would laugh.

“Nobody else seemed to notice, but I was getting seriously stressed,” says Tanya. 

Eventually, she went to her HR department to discuss what she should do. A kind and assertive HR representative told her her options – to formally report a case of sexual harassment, or to informally approach Marlon with a warning.

“She offered to accompany me, so I chose the informal route,” says Tanya. They made a time to meet Marlon outside of the office space, and Tanya told him that she found his behaviour inappropriate and that she would lay a formal charge of harassment if he continued.

“At first he blustered and asked why a good-looking guy like himself would need to harass a girl like me. But eventually he backed down. He actually apologised,” says Tanya.

Worth Speaking Out

A month on, and Marlon has stopped telling offensive jokes in the office – and he has not made any inappropriate moves on Tanya. “I think he got a fright – and I was serious about reporting him. He could have lost his job,” says Tanya.

“I am glad I took the steps that I did. I love my job, and he was spoiling it for me. Eventually, maybe I would have moved on, and that would have been unfair. I did the right thing – not only for myself, but for other women working in my firm,” she smiles.

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Read more about Sexual Harassment and how the CCMA can help you.