Harassment up

During a recent presentation and discussion it was revealed that sexual harassment is on the rise in the workplace throughout the Caribbean. Many young men and women as young as 18 years old have related several incidences of being sexually harassed by senior individuals in organisations where they were either temporarily or permanently assigned.

This form of behaviour is not surprising to many of us who are aware that for many years our society has imposed restrictions on women in relation to sexual behaviour but the males among us were allowed to “sow their wild oats”.

The situation is so embedded in our society to the extent that if a young man does not say something sexually demeaning to a young woman as she passes by, he is ridiculed by his peers and in some cases may be labelled a homosexual for not making these derogatory statements about or to females.

It must be noted here that very often older males are overheard encouraging young males to behave in this disrespectful manner as they too seem to derive some pleasure from making such comments. It should not come as a surprise that some females who are perhaps suffering from a bad case of “penis envy” may try to emulate the behaviour of their male counterparts and sexually harass young male subordinates.

This behaviour appears to be getting out of hand since I have also read in the media that the minister of labour is also planning to address this issue, among others. The article this week is about sexual harassment in the workplace.

Before I go any further, let me say here that I have already written about this issue in an earlier article. However, since this subject seems to be on the rise, I am hoping to elucidate more information about recent research on the matter with the expectation that some form of positive social change will result.

As usual I will start with a definition of the topic. Sexual harassment has been defined as “unwarranted and unwelcome sexual attention” and it has become such a global issue that many researchers have predicted that about one-half of most women will be sexually harassed either during high school and college or while at work (Amick & Sorenson, 2004).

Moreover, the problem has become so extensive that it has been considered the most ubiquitous form of harassment globally. One must note here that although sexual harassment is usually focused on women, several men have found themselves the victim of this form of conduct. Nevertheless, the majority of victims are predominantly women old or young and of varying social and professional backgrounds (United States Systems Protection Board, 1988).

As a matter of fact, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (in the US) has provided statistics that suggest that 85 per cent of sexual harassment charges filed with that institution pertained to women.

Actually, research by Amick & Sorenson, (2004) revealed that from as early as 1985 sexual harassment documentation showed that when compared to men, women are actually forced to give up their jobs or worse yet lose it as a result of sexual harassment (cited in Gutek, 1985). One can therefore conclude that this problem presents a major stumbling block to the advancement of women’s careers and job opportunities.

This begs the question, how does sexual harassment impact on the individual’s psychological well-being? Well some researchers have also found that victims often experience several health related issues that can range from depression, lack of motivation, reduced interpersonal skills, work family life balance issues as well as physical and mental job strain to name a few. It is also well documented that these psychological issues can then result in physical health problems such as hypertension and other physical problems.

Now sexual harassment is not only an individual issue, it can often have some negative influences on the organisation as well. Unfortunately, there is a dearth of knowledge in this area for the Caribbean but in the United States and United Kingdom sexual harassment is reported to have caused organisations to incur financial losses through absenteeism, job turnover and decreased productivity. Indeed research has shown that in 1988 alone, sexual harassment cost the United States Federal Government about US $267 million (Jensen & Gutek as cited in Amick & Sorenson, 2004).

What is surprising is that in the Caribbean, we are often quick to emulate models of change from first world countries that at times do not fit into our culture and are not as pressing an issue as this. Yet, sexual harassment was made illegal by these countries about 30 years ago and we appear to be still in wonderment about the way forward. Doubtless to say, sexual harassment is considered a violation of title VII of the Civil Rights Act and has been given the legal definition of “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favours, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature… when this conduct explicitly affects an individual’s employment…” (Amick & Sorenson, 2004 pp2).

Given this information one can only hope that since we in the Caribbean often follow the lead of larger countries, we will develop a model that fits into our own particular circumstances and protect our employees from this scourge. Now let me explain here for those individuals who are extremist that everything someone says is not considered sexual harassment. However, before I do this, let me provide some examples of what it is.

It is any “verbal comments of a sexual nature; sexual or smutty jokes; repeated comments or teasing about someone’s alleged sexual activities or private life; persistent, unwelcome social invitations, telephone calls or emails from other” employees …; “following someone home from…” work; “offensive hand or body gestures; leering or ogling; unwelcome physical contact e.g. patting, pinching, touching or putting an arm around another person; provocative visual material in either hardcopy or electronic media”.

Now we can conclude that all we need to do is learn to show respect to each other as the following quote should enlighten us as to what it is not. It is not “Friendly banter, light-hearted exchanges, mutually acceptable jokes and compliments; friendships, sexual or otherwise, where both people consent to the relationship; assertive expressing of opinions that are different from others’; words or actions that are directed at the advancement of knowledge, add to critical debate, or which serve as pedagogical framework and which are not targeted at individuals’; free and frank discussion about issues or concerns, without personal insults; legitimate criticisms made to a another” … individual “about their behaviour or … performance (not expressed in a hostile, harassing manner”).

Please note that these definitions were taken from the University of New Zealand’s website to provide guidance to stakeholders in organisations across the Caribbean. I have also provide the link to the site for easy perusal (http://www.massey.ac.nz/massey/student-life/services-and-resources/harrassment-resolution/what-is-harrassment/what-is-harrassment_home.cfm).

In closing, I suggest that we revert to our past values and standards which include respect for each other and then maybe we will reduce the psychological harm to employees in the workplace. I also believe that we need to speak up and make our law makers accountable for developing laws that will protect and encourage high moral values thus making our workplace and by extension our Caribbean a pleasant place in which to live and work. Until next time…

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

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