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Can we tackle taboo topic?
In the face of the continuing sexual harassment scandal involving the former Sports Minister Darryl Smith, calls continue to be made for the implementation of legislation to address what has previously been referred to as a “taboo” subject in both private and public offices.
And in the absence of a national sexual harassment policy, which Government has now commited itself to implementing eventually, the responsibility has been thrust onto the shoulders of employers in both spheres to ensure the protection of all employees, whether male or female, from sexual harassment.
While many companies do not have a written policy, officials have assured there is an avenue for recourse for any aggrieved person.
Although females constitute between 65 and 75 per cent of the workforce employed by Xtra Foods Ltd, for example, the private grocery-store chain remains without a written policy relating to sexual harassment.
Chief Executive Officer Shiva Mungal explained, “The cashiers and merchandisers make up the majority.”
Agreeing that this portion of the workforce did in fact form the face of the company, Mungal confirmed that close to 75 per cent of their customer base was also female. He said although there was no written policy in place regarding sexual harassment, his personal policy is, “I don’t stand for it at all.”
Asked what recourse was available to employees who felt sexually harassed at work, Mungal said, “There is an executive team that traverses the stores and any complaints would come to them, myself included.”
Having dealt with cases of this nature at previous places of employment, Mungal added, “These cases are very sensitive and there is a process that has to be followed. The first step is to record the complaint or allegation, followed by discussions with the accused. Depending on what is unearthed and the depth of the accusation, it must be taken forward.”
Mungal said while there is no perfect way to handle such complaints, “sometimes, depending on the parties involved, you may be able to bring all of them together to discuss it, and there may be times when you need to get witnesses involved given the history and nature of the complaints.”
He said third party evidence could play a big part in determining the fate of the accused, because “if the allegations are found to be true, then we will take the next necessary step.”
In the case of “he say, she say,” which he admitted was one of the most difficult cases to move forward from, Mungal said he was unaware of persons being paid off or having to walk away from their jobs due to sexual harassment at any place he has worked.
Asked if Xtra Foods Ltd could soon be introducing a sexual harassment policy, Mungal said, “It is something we will have to look into.”
To people experiencing discomfort of a sexual nature in the workplace, Mungal urged them “to speak up as this is the first step in really taking this issue forward.”
Empathising with women in this kind of situation who feel hopeless, fear victimisation and may not have the luxury of walking away from the job, Mungal said, “I know this a reality out here and it is something we need to work towards as a society.”
Confronted with the Trinidadian culture and mentality of men who “compliment” women in a manner which can be interpreted or construed in some instances as a form of sexual harassment, Mungal said, “It is part of our culture and it will happen. In terms of how far that goes though, men need to be very careful and it is something I pay particular attention to when dealing with female employees.”
He cautioned, “It is something you have to be mindful of and if you don’t train yourself, it is something that can happen naturally and innocently.”
Nancoo: Respect for female-folk critical, change won’t occur overnight
Various companies, however, have written policies on sexual harassment.
At ANSA McAL, there are stringent guidelines warning against a zero tolerance approach to sexual harassment in the workplace.
One policy reads: “The Group is committed to the maintenance of a work environment that is free of inappropriate and disrespectful conduct of a sexually harassing nature. Such acts, whether they be physical or verbal, will be treated as gross misconduct and subject to the sternest disciplinary action including the termination of employment.”
Stressing that sexual harassment is prohibited, it also advises employees that they had up to six months from the time of an incident to register their complaint verbally or in writing. Employees are also warned against filing false allegations/accusations, as this could lead to disciplinary action being taken and end in employment termination.
At Caribbean Airlines (CAL) a similar policy exists, where sexual harassment is expressly prohibited.
It is defined as, “unwelcomed advances, requests, for sexual favours, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature when (1) submission to such conduct is made either explicitly or implicitly a term or condition of an individual’s employment, or (2) submission to or rejection of such conduct by an individual, or (3) such conduct , has the purpose or effect of interfering with an individual’s work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile or offensive working environment.”
The policy document continues, “Specifically, no person shall, and no person has the authority to, imply or state, either directly or indirectly, to any individual, that an individual’s refusal to submit to sexual advances will adversely affect any term or condition of a person’s employment. Moreover, no supervisory employee shall or has the authority to promise or suggest, either directly or indirectly, that a person’s submission to sexual advances will result in improvement in any term or condition of employment.”
The CAL policy further advises: “Upon immediate receipt or knowledge of an act of sexual harassment, the employee must ask the harasser to stop the behaviour. The employee shall report the situation to the vice president, Human Resources or designate to investigate the matter at hand.
“Both the accuser and the accused will be investigated along with any witness to the situation. Documentation of statements will exist in this process. It is critical in all cases, that the employee who lodged the complaint is given prompt feedback on the conclusion of the investigation. Any employee who lodges a false allegation against another employee, or any accuser/ accused who makes a false statement will be subject to disciplinary action.”
Vice president of Human Resources at Guardian Holdings Ltd, Keston Nancoo described sexual harassment as, “highly discriminatory and intimidatory and is not tolerated at all, period.”
He said they had in the recent past been reminding all employees that it unacceptable and the accompanying consequences, but noted, “This is an industrial relations offence and there must be due process,”
He said failure to do so could land the respective employer in even more challenging circumstances.
Donning his hat as Employers’ Consultative Association (ECA) chairman, Nancoo said in 2014 they embarked on a public campaign with members after they realised “it was becoming a bit prevalent.” He said members were urged to introduce/implement robust sexual harassment policies in their respective workplaces in order to increase awareness and reduce incidents.
While he is heartened with the national conversation currently taking place, Nancoo said, “It is very unfortunate that as a country, we wait until something escalates to a national issue before we take action. Now I am seeing that there is a decision to make that mandatory for all employers and organisations, and the ECA believes it is absolutely necessary to ensure that organisations, notwithstanding how small it is, to have such a policy in place.”
Alluding to the cultural nuances associated with Trinbagonians, Nancoo accepted that “change doesn’t happen overnight.”
He said, “We need to begin to plant the seeds and ensure that at every turn, it gets into the psyche of our people that it is not okay to make such comments.”
The ECA head predicted that with the repercussions connected to sexual harassment - within the next five years, human behaviour would be changed for the better.
Nancoo is hoping to witness an entire movement for change.
“We just need to have more respect for our female-folk. It’s all about the value system which has been thrown out the window and we need to get back there, where we are living those core values.”
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