Contributor: Audrey Allen, Member Services Committee
The International Labour Organization (ILO) describes sexual harassment in the workplace as any verbal or physical act with a sexual nature, performed in recruitment or in the workplace by a boss, manager, employee, client or customer of a working unit, that is unwelcomed by the person receiving it and has caused the person to feel violated, insulted, and being in an unbearable hostile environment.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission defines this behavior as unwelcome sexual advances, request for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature ...when submission to or rejection of this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual’s employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment.
Workplace covers any place under the direct or indirect control of the employer that an employee needs to be present or go to in order to carry out work. It includes office and other locations where the job responsibilities are undertaken, such as offices of clients, destinations of business trips, venues of business lunch/dinner, business branches, homes of clients, etc. and also the appropriate extension of the workplace, such as excursion, social activities, staff gathering after work that are organized by the company.
There are different forms of sexual harassment in the workplace – verbal, physical, visual. The verbal or physical acts with a sexual nature include joking or teasing with a sexual nature; continuous invitation to dinner or date despite rejection; intentional dissemination of hearsay with a sexual nature; enquiring for or sharing sexual experience; spreading, request for sexual intercourse; unnecessary physical contact; forced sexual intercourse; visual act would involve displaying a nude or image with apparent sexual contents.
Sexual harassment in the workplace can be very damaging to the well being of an employee as well as the company. It destroys morale, build distrust, and affect productivity through frequent absences, illness, reduced efficiency, demotivation and resignations. It could result in emotional and stress-related illnesses, revulsion, anger, and frustration. It can affect promotion, loss of benefits through length of service on retirement, and job security.
Recourse against sexual harassment can be by way of legal, but research has suggested that the best way is to develop and implement a policy. HR can play a leading role in preventing and correcting this behavior, through awareness, communication and civility can lead to the prevention of sexual harassment in the workplace. Employers can implement a policy and include the following steps to protect their company and employees:
§ Create a written policy on sexual harassment. Immediately emphasize in the policy that the company will have zero tolerance for sexual harassment in the workplace. Also state that if a complaint is lodged, it will be thoroughly and quickly investigated.
§ Educate all supervisors and staff about what constitutes sexual harassment. Clearly define sexual harassment so no one can claim that he/she did not know that the behavior was inappropriate.
§ Publicize the policy throughout the workplace.
§ Create a communication channel where complaints can be reported and also where natural embarrassment, reluctance and fear will be eliminated or minimized.
§ Take speedy action to investigate and resolve all complaints. The policy should identify the individuals to whom a complaint can be made. It is usually the Manager, Human Resources or some other management official. It is wise to name at least two people to contact since one may be the harasser, and the company will need a neutral party to investigate.
§ Communicate that offenders will be appropriately disciplined.
§ When beginning the investigation, question the complainant first and then the alleged harasser. Ask open- ended questions and try not to be judgmental. Give the same attention and respect to both parties.
§ Do not guarantee absolute confidentiality to either party but do try to keep the investigation as confidential as possible.
§ After interviewing the parties involved, speak to any witnesses whose names have arisen in the investigation, and reiterate that they should also maintain confidentiality to prevent hurt feelings and further damage to the workforce.
§ Evaluate all the evidence from every source. If the investigation is inconclusive, notify both parties that the investigation did not support the allegations and no corrective actions will therefore be taken. If the evidence, however, substantiates the complaint, take immediate steps to discipline the harasser. This may be a severe reprimand, suspension, or termination depending on the seriousness of the behavior and the disciplinary steps required to be followed in the company’s policy. Warn the harasser if he/she is not discharged that any future sexual harassment or retaliation can result in possible termination. Tell the victim of HR’s decision, apologize, and promise to stop any future sexual harassment or retaliation that may occur. Do not engage in any action towards the victim that may be interpreted as punishment for coming forward.
§ Write a thorough report on all the findings. Summarize the allegations, responses and conclusions made. Allow both parties to read the report but do not give them copies so that confidentiality may be maintained.
§ Monitor exit interviews for previously suppressed claims of sexual harassment and act on the complaints, even if the employee has left the job. It is suggested by the ILO that monitoring of both parties continue for up to one year to assure that sexual harassment has stopped and has not reoccurred.
If HR consistently follows its company policy, train its employees to spot sexual harassment, and take swift corrective action if harassment does occur, these steps may prevent this type of misconduct.
According to the ILO Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations, sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination and measures should be implemented to address this issue in the workplace. In several developed countries there are organizations that have the responsibility to advise persons who make charges of sexual harassment, to disseminate information and to train in the handling of sexual harassment cases. If management’s intervention is ineffective, then one may consult a lawyer or contact an organization such as the Bureau of Women’s Affairs to seek redress.
While there is no Jamaican law on the subject of sexual harassment, it could become a legal issue depending on the extent of the harassment, for instance if it reaches the state of assault.