Sexual harassment in the workplace.

This article was published in the Trinidad Express Newspapers on January 18th 2019

The following paragraphs appeared in the Trinidad Express on March 30, 1984. It was before the ME TOO# movement which exploded two years ago worldwide.

Can you spot what has changed in T&T since?

Sexual harassment on the job is rapidly becoming a topic for serious consideration by personnel managers in Trinidad and Tobago. Identification of sexual harassment as a disciplinary offense throughout the organisation and the establishment of procedures by which to handle it are becoming regular features of personnel updates in those organisations where management policies are reviewed and updated periodically. There are, unfortunately, thousands of companies in Trinidad and Tobago that never bother to periodically review policies and procedures unless forced to by outside events such as new ECO forms, Industrial Court Awards, directives from the Industry and Commerce Ministry, or a budget speech that threatens them with extinction. As Toefflar points out in “The Third Wave”, however, with every wave of progress that takes place in the world, there will be those on the crest of the wave going forward, those in the trough and those in the small reactionary wave that draws back in an undertow as the crested wave of progress goes forward.

 Rather like those aging, middle class, reactionaries in Trinidad who still put domestic servants and labourers in the back seat of the car when giving them a drop to the corner, much to the amusement of passer-by, there are still companies in Trinidad and Tobago. Trinidad in that reactionary undertow wave that refuse to acknowledge sexual harassment on the job as an issue at all, and consider that if it does happen, the girl was probably ‘looking for it’. Since this is one of the most degrading of offenses against women employees, however, it is time that, even without crisis prompting, managers with responsibility for personnel lay down policies and procedures to deal with the eventuality and implement them. Too often women endure such harassment in silent, embarrassed misery because they are convinced it will cost their jobs if they make a fuss-or, indeed, if they don’t pretend to welcome it.

Traditionally, sexual harassment was just that- something a woman often had to put up with on the job because there was nowhere to go, no way to fight it, and chances of getting another job were limited. It was – and in many companies still is – the custom for personnel managers, or other senior managers- themselves male with normal sexual appetites – to simply disbelieve any female employee who complained. Not that they didn’t believe that it happened, they did, with a “ho-ho-ho, he’s quite the old boy, isn’t he?” inner smile. They just didn’t believe it was important. Women who complained were (and are) regarded as trouble makers. Since it is almost a formula of sexual harassment that the harassers are male and in a senior position to the woman ( and in some cases recently, to the male) being harassed it is equally a rule that the superior’s word is believed against the employee’s , and his claims that she was exaggerating a normal, friendly gesture-blowing it out all proportion etc, were accepted. The willingness of a male manager to believe in the emotional instability of female employees who previously have shown no signs of instability greater than those of male employees on an equal level, or to attribute to young and vulnerable women on their staff the evil impulses of a Lilith looking to trap and falsely accuse their male superiors would be amusing if it weren’t so patently self-deceiving and/or hypocritical. Just as, in one case out of every thousand, one may find a female manager sexually harassing a young, vulnerable male employee, it is unfortunately frequently still the male manager who is also the harasser of young males, so one will find the occasional case where a manager is falsely accused of sexual harassment by a female employee. Since she almost invariably loses her job, or at least, any chances of subsequent promotion or new employment for so doing, the motivation for such false accusations must be unusually powerful, but it does happen.

In the past ten years I cannot recall one case in which a male manager has lost his job or has been seriously disciplined for reported sexual harassment- even with ample supporting evidence. I can, however, recall several where the “troublemaking” woman was transferred, “retrenched” or eventually left the company because of the changed attitude towards her by her co-workers and managers.

It is a plain, unvarnished fact that any manager who makes sexual advances of any kind even “heavy kidding around” to a female employee in a subordinate position is degrading himself, first. Because he cannot be so stupid as not to know that in so doing, he is exploiting the superior-subordinate relationship, and endeavouring to get sexual responses, not on the basis of the woman’s attraction for him, but on the basis of his organisational power (real or assumed) over her, he is devaluing his own coin. If he really can’t contain his sexual exuberance, there is no reason why a man can’t go after an employee of the company next door, where there are no psychological master/servant pressures on her to accept. One would think that for any self-respecting male it would be preferable to know that any relationship he enters into is done on the basis of a woman’s attraction to him rather than her fear of not appearing to enjoy it. As long as she is in a subordinate position to him in the same organisation, he can never ever be sure that her response is not really conditioned by the organisational status he holds.

There are fairly simple, even discreet procedures that can be set up in a company to protect employees- both male and female from this sort of harassment and since the most effective disciplinary procedures are corrective, not punitive in orientation, to correct the situation should it occur. Unfortunately, too few companies protect their employees by establishing such systems. There are procedures for dealing with employee theft or other employees’ belongings, for dealing with violence and obscenity, but not for sexual harassment. Perhaps we need an Industrial Court Award on the matter before companies in the undertow wave of management policy making take action.

In Britain, a woman was warded GBP 2000 pounds compensation by an industrial tribunal which determined that she had been unfairly dismissed because she took action against sexual harassment. The woman was in a pub in this particular instance, where the firm’s accountant had been touching and interrupting her, trying to lift her over the bar and put his hands around her neck. When he tried to force a mug of beer into her hands, she poured it over his head. He promptly told her she was fired, a decision later confirmed by the company’s Managing Director, who obviously believed the accountant’s story. The woman took the case to Court and won which was, to my knowledge, the first time an industrial tribunal in the United Kingdom made an award under that country’s Sex Discrimination Act.

When women are brave enough to take such matters up, more companies will institute policies against harassment. Many have already. One interesting development has begun to emerge in Boards of Directors’ circles, however, which should spur the process on. Over the past two years I have heard in a number of instances where a manager otherwise competent, was not considered for future promotion – particularly to a Chief Executive position, because, in the words of one Chairman “he can’t keep his hands-off women.” At senior levels where a manager’s reputation is taken into consideration when his ability to represent the organisation is weighed up, if a manager cannot discreetly keep his sexual activities out of his own organisation (and no matter how one wishes (hopes) to deceive oneself, such matters are ALWAYS known within the company) he loses out. It is not true, therefore, to say that sexual ethics are not important in organisational life-they are. Unfortunately, the fact that they are important is not frequently enough made known to management staff. It’s not even a matter of morals generally, it is simply sound organisational policy. It does not take much intelligence to realise the extent to which in-company sexual activity involving manager and employee can undermine the respect and authority credited to a manager. Without that authority, he or she cannot effectively manage. At a time when effective managers are desperately needed, companies just can’t afford to take the chance on promoting someone whose sexual ethics involve harassing subordinates.

The difference is that in T.D. 17 of 85 the Industrial Court upheld the dismissal of a male bank employee for sexual harassment. One small step for the Court, one huge step for humankind.

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