The Employment Sexual Harassment Legislation appears to have struck a nerve among Barbadians based on the intense interest that has been generated so far. At the heart of the discussions, one striking question is the definition of exactly what constitutes sexual harassment. Some observers believe that one must be careful of transplanting a law or provision from one jurisdiction to the other without taking into account the local culture and practices. Others note that it has been a perennial problem faced by women from all backgrounds. It is optimal therefore that some form of education on the subject is undertaken so that the terms of the legislation are understood by all, but hopefully this discussion will spark a larger movement towards more professionalism in the workplace.
As a topic, sexual harassment has had some very high profile moments lately, from the scandals in Hollywood to the British Parliament. Closer to home, many West Indians felt compelled to criticise the allegations levelled against cricketer Chris Gayle, who has since won his defamation case against Fairfax Media. Inspite of the fears expressed mainly by women who fear repercussions after speaking up about their experiences, it is clear that around the world sexual harassment in the workplace is taken extremely seriously.
And yet local discussions on call-in programmes and social media reveal some confusion over what exactly constitutes sexual harassment. Questions have ranged from: Can one still pay a coworker a compliment on how he/she looks? Can one make a ‘dirty’ joke without it being reported to higher ups? The proposed legislation lays out several specific scenarios that can make up harassment, however a key aspect is if the sexually suggestive communiqués or actions ‘annoy, alarm, abuse’ someone or where contact is ‘uninvited’ and ‘unwelcome’, and where the grievance is a one-time instance instead of a pattern of abuse. Clearly, the level of discomfort experienced by persons will differ according to the person.
Some responses from the public have made it seem as if Barbados’ cultural norms and whole way of existing will suddenly cease. We imagine the proposed legislation will be a rude awakening for those whose mouths have long been left to run without cover even at work. Regardless of the cultural connotations or practices, it should be a standard expectation in any workplace that one is there to work first and play later. Of course, one will expect banter, but there should also be an expectation of professional comportment on the job – and consequences if that regulation is breached. Far too often, there is a certain carefree attitude evident among some persons which does not bode well for optimal business practice.
That said, we also hope that frivolous complaints are not presented to human resource managers on the basis of hurting the career of another. In those instances, both parties must be able to present their sides and careful action is taken to ensure fairness and justice.
As with any new legislation, we expect it will find its legs in its execution. There is therefore need for much education in the public domain so that it is pellucidly clear what will or will not be suitable in the workplace. However, we hope it leads to a wider conversation on the standard of behaviour that is expected in the office to make it a comfortable, neutral environment for everyone.