Handling harrasment

A discussion with some female students during the past week has lead me to believe that sexual harassment and favouritism is widespread in some organisations throughout the wider Caribbean region.

The main complaint among the young females is that since the economic recession where most jobs are either part-time or temporary, some males in senior positions are taking the opportunity to force their attention on them.

Case in point, while working in a temporary position at a firm, a young female reported that one male boss started making offensive remarks, staring in a suggestive way and telling sexual jokes in her presence. She really wanted the job because many firms are not hiring due to the existing economic situation.

After reporting the uncomfortable situation to her friends the advice given was, try to ignore him. However, this did not work and what made matters worse was the boss realised that he was being ignored and started to be critical of her work (using bullying tactics).

She has now become fearful of his covert aggressive attitude towards her and is actively looking for a job.

Another employee reported that her uncle had asked one of his friends to give her a position in a firm. After the friend had done the favour, he was at first friendly and then later appeared to want something more. After she made her position clear, he too started to be critical of her work. The article this week is about favouritism and sexual harassment in the workplace.

Firstly, according to (Drew, n.d.), favouritism has been described as “giving preferential treatment to one or more employees” over others who are more qualified for the position (www.ehow.co.uk/info).

While we may view this definition with righteous indignation, one must admit that since organisations depend to a large extent on the subjective judgement of managers and supervisors, this creates the environment for such a phenomenon to occur.

Ordinarily, most large organisations have become dependent on the judgement of managers regarding the performance of their employees and unless the manager adheres to good ethical practices his behaviour is open to this type of interference.

Coupled with this, there are those individuals who believe that favouritism “is a natural phenomenon which exists everywhere” (Ozler & Buyukarslam, 2011). Unless we are blind in one eye and can’t see in the other, most of us know that favouritism is a regular occurrence in our organisations right here in Bim.

There are some who believe that favouritism is justifiable and according to one of my former bosses “an employee has to be in the right place at the right time” and some of us never were.

In reality, favouritism occurs because management likes his/her personality or even how the individual may look. For instance, we in the Caribbean are still hooked by the post colonial behaviour that has instilled in us the preference for “brown skin, clear skin, clean skin or closest to white skin”. So very often, individuals who possess such characteristics are favoured over others.

On the other hand, the current economic climate may create an environment where job demands are high but job supply is low hence there are some unscrupulous managers who would take this opportunity to exploit female employees by favouring them in the hopes that he (or she) are rewarded with sexual favours.

When this expectation is not realised, the situation may change into a hostile environment. This brings us to the whole issue of sexual harassment in the workplace.

The circumstances of sexual harassment have become so wide-spread that the Federal Communication Commission in the United States has defined it as “a form of discrimination that violates” the civil rights of an individual. It expressly speaks to “unwelcome verbal and physical conduct” which could either be “based on race, colour, religion” or “sex” (http://www.fcc.gov/encyclopedia/understanding-workplace-harassment-fcc-staff) and in our case social class.

Moreover, sexual harassment also relates to aggravation of persons over the age of 40 and disabled (mental & physical) individuals. Specifically, sexual harassment relates to any form of behaviour that creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment. What is also interesting here is that not only the supervisor or manager can create such an environment. Co-workers and non-employees (contractors, vendors or guest) can also commit this offence.

One must also note that although the offensive conduct may not be directed at onlookers they are also victims of such conduct. At this point you may be asking what type of conduct constitutes sexual harassment. According to the FCC, it may include any of the following and more:

* Conduct that is so severe it creates a hostile work environment

* The supervisor/manager’s conduct results in a change in status (demotion, termination, being overlooked for promotion) for the employee.

* Leering i.e. staring in a sexually suggestive manner.

* Making offensive remarks about looks, clothing or body parts.

* Touching in a way that makes an employee feel uncomfortable ( i.e. patting, pinching, or intentional brushing against another’s body).

* Telling sexual jokes or vulgar jokes, hanging sexual posters, making sexual gestures.

* Sending forwarding or soliciting sexually suggestive letters, notes, emails or images to employees.

Finally, although favouritism may lead to sexual harassment this is not often the case. This does not mean that it is acceptable behaviour, far from it. If favouritism is allowed to continue the organisation will develop a negative reputation in industry circles while levels of dissatisfaction and conflict among employees will increase.

In relation to sexual harassment, this is a form of discrimination that strikes at the heart of workplace ethics, morality and civil rights of employees. If this is allowed to continue the organisation could develop a negative image in society, much like favouritism.

But added to that, the organisation could become a “revolving door” with frequent staff turnover, high absenteeism and the resultant low productivity. Who wants this to happen to their organisation? Definitely not the share holders, my advice is to develop human resource policies and practices that would reduce the incidences of undue favouritism and sexual harassment in the workplace.

* Daren Greaves is a Management & Organisational Psychology Consultant at Dwensa Incorporated. e-mail: darengreaves@gmail.com, Phone: (246) 436-4215

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