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Saturday 18 November 2017
Commentary

Addressing sexual harassment in the work place

Courtney McNish writes a weekly column for the Newsday. 

Sexual harassment in our society, I believe, floats around a space where the demarcation is muddled and intermingled with what behaviour is or is not acceptable within the context of our wider societal culture. Therefore, although there are clear “don't-cross” lines and prohibitions in company policy, what is often acted out and even tolerated as “norms” may be direct violations and open to severe sanctions, including dismissal.

Workplace sexual harassment is uninvited behaviour against and/or advances towards a person, perpetrated in many forms. Its pervasiveness creates an unsafe or hostile working environment. How such conduct is handled could become culturally disruptive to the workplace, notwithstanding any written policy of zero tolerance.

We are aware of some powerful international personalities who ,within recent times, have had several public allegations of sexual harassment, inappropriate conduct and even criminal assault made against them.

On our local soil, for example, we were made aware of a journalist’s leaked resignation letter to her employer, alleging that a candidate aspiring to high office conducted himself inappropriately towards her during the course of her performing her substantive work duties. Even worse than this was the report made to the police against a former government minister in April 2014, alleging that he asked for and received sexual favours from a citizen in exchange for a government house.

These allegations fit well with the long-accepted hypothesis that such offensive conduct best thrives in a relationship between the powerful and the subordinate. What, however, stands out to me the most, is that in almost all cases, victims feel powerless, weak and ashamed for a wrong done to them. Further, I have frequently noticed that when allegations become public, we often witness subsequent subtle or even overt attempts of victim-shaming.

Sexual-harassment allegations against public notables mirror the imbalance of power within our workplace and broader societies. I am sure that the vast majority of this type of misconduct in the workplace quietly falls into the category of non-reported episodes. Although we have very few statistics on which to rely in this country, we should not believe that these are perpetrated only against women by men. There are reported cases of misconduct against women by women and men by men or women.

In our society, non-traditional cases of harassment, I can only imagine, are even more difficult to report and discuss within the workplace, given what is still considered “taboo.” It may be difficult and seen as embarrassing for a male to lodge a complaint against a female colleague or boss. And yes, men can also fall prey to victim shaming.

Although there are fewer reported incidents of male sexual harassment, it does not mean it is not happening, but it can suggest that we tend to take it less seriously. In many societies when men are preyed on or viewed as just “meat” it is widely viewed as – especially by their male counterparts – a sign of machismo. A downside of less reporting means that there is also less of an opportunity, data and research possibilities to better understand and treat with how men are affected and the behaviour/characteristic of the new female predator.

In the broad instance, the action of reporting sexual misconduct could mean that the only person to suffer would be the victim. This decision to report can end in career suicide, especially if the perpetrator holds an esteemed position in the society/workplace.

The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a government agency responsible for processing sexual harassment complaints, has estimated that 75 per cent of all workplace harassment incidents go unreported. The “locker-room” lewd jokes and comments about physical appearances often emerge in the office space as norms of behaviour and oftentimes offended workers do not understand how to deal with it.

At the onset, when someone has acted inappropriately towards you, according to the situation, you may wish to first address it directly to the offending person, in a calm and respectable manner. You may or may not wish to address it to HR immediately, depending on your assessment of such things as history and the severity of the offence, relationship etc. It could have been an honest misunderstanding where communication may not have been processed well. Sometimes people misinterpret signals and subsequent actions tend to end with embarrassing responses. Consider if you can help a colleague understand and appreciate lines, personal space and so on, because some people are totally unaware.

However, where there are rumours or other instances of misconduct and harassment taking place by that identified person, and it happens to you, at the onset you may want to report the incident immediately to HR, as the behaviour is not merely miscommunication, but clearly deliberate.

Sexual harassment is a very difficult case to prove and it is a sensitive matter to treat. Not only can victims bear the brunt of the burden, but also a person’s character is at stake. It has been reported that Dr RolphBalgobin has been cleared by Angostura of the sexual harassments allegations made against him. This justifies why extra caution has to be taken during the investigative process.

But turning a blind eye and/or being complicit to misbehaviour does in no way help make the work environment any safer for you and your colleagues.

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