Danny Roberts | Sexual Harassment Act – ball is now in employers’ court
The alarming rate of increase in the incidence of violence against women has, unexpectedly, not incensed us as a people to a deeper curiosity about its root cause and how to overcome it. We seem somehow preoccupied with more laws and stiffer penalties, which definitely have their place, but have failed to give equal measure and attention to the cause as we do to the consequence. There is, nonetheless, much in our recent experience that beckons us to a new approach to placing much more emphasis on getting to the root of the matter. The nature of violence in our communities has, sadly, spilled over into our school system, and, perhaps, it may be just a matter of time before the workplace is swept up in this despicable phenomenon.
Very shortly, Jamaica will have a Sexual Harassment (Protection and Prevention) Act, 2021, once the Senate approves and the governor general gives his accent. This is an important first step in tackling sexual harassment at the workplace because in a much more controlled environment, an employer will be mandated by law to issue a sexual harassment policy and take all reasonable steps to bring such a policy to the attention of his/her employees. In bringing both the policy and a preventative approach to sexual harassment to the attention of the employees, we have every reason to treat it for what it is, a human rights issue, and to recognise that each employee has the right to a work environment that is free from violence and harassment, including gender-based violence and harassment.
What no legislation can make us fully aware of, however, is the emotional and psychological harm that a range of unacceptable behaviours and practices can have on the victims. Studies on violence and harassment against women in Jamaica show that there is lasting effect on the victim’s health. The victims – whether men or women – have a higher risk of developing depressive symptoms, experiencing debilitating stress reactions, high blood pressure, lowered self-esteem, and sleep disorder. The implications of poor health on missed career opportunities as well as its impact on the family of the victim are well documented. From the perspective of the organisation, millions of dollars are being lost through declining productivity, absenteeism and low morale, supported by anecdotal evidence which bears a high degree of subjective truth to its impact on workplace productivity and rates of absenteeism and the negative implications for the labour market and the participation rate of women in productive activities.
WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE
Which brings us to what needs to be done to give effect to this piece of Sexual Harassment workplace legislation. From a more general, macro perspective, our educational system must seek to infuse from an early age that the doctrine of sexual harassment, and in fact, the wider issue of domestic and community violence, negatively reflects the ways we understand questions of gender justice, racial justice, and values of equality. This is a legacy issue that we would be loathe to ignore in understanding the deeply embedded cause of our continued violence against women in particular and against each other. It certainly does not offer an explanation in its entirety but helps us to understand who we are in order to position ourselves for the future.
At the workplace, the extent and meaning of sexual harassment prevention training must follow on that trajectory. This, too, requires a change in workplace culture, which too often reflects the microcosmic influence of a wider societal ‘culture’ that justifies the indignity and disrespect shown to women and inevitably allows the harassment to flourish. The very culture of an organisation is literally shaped by the worst behaviour that managers are willing to tolerate. And while the change in organisational culture will take time, the response of the executive and senior management team in setting the tone for the organisation is essential. Employers and supervisors can put an end to corporate culture that perpetuates harassment, particularly in male-dominated industries, by taking the appropriate action to eliminate toxic behaviours and attitudes, rebalance corporate power dynamics, and teach employees how they can promote an environment free from sexual harassment.
A ‘cultural’ approach to dealing with harassment in the workplace would, therefore, be quite useful to get employees to see the adoption of anti-harassment training as reinforcing mutual respect and according dignity to work and workers. This would be understood as their choice in improving the quality of their working environment and promoting the notion of decent work.
Developing training sessions to motivate employees to show “prosocial” behaviours that demonstrate respect for individual human rights and allegiance to the needs and interests of co-workers are the kind of commitment from employers that would validate their seriousness in addressing workplace sexual harassment. Employers could also absorb in the assessment of employee’s competencies, through 360-degree peer-reviews, issues relating to integrity, respect shown to co-workers and clients, and the handling of conflict.
Finally, some employers are seemingly phlegmatic about developing a sexual-harassment policy and engaging in sexual-harassment training. The policy is, however, mandatory, irrespective of the size of the organisation or whether you have had a history of sexual-harassment claims. The benefits of such a training - focused as it is on positive values and ‘prosocial’ behaviour – will have lasting benefits on the employee’s performance, reduce workplace conflict, build team work and cooperation, and improve productivity, efficiency, and profitability.
Danny Roberts is a labour educator and the lead partner at IR Plus Consultants. Send feedback to email@example.com.