HR professionals on the front lines of sexual harassment battle

'How would you feel if it was your daughter?'

As a professional coach who helps tackle sexual harassment in the workplace, Cindy Blekaitis finds herself asking the same question over and over again.

“How would you feel if it was your daughter?”

If there are any blurred lines about what type of behaviour is appropriate, she finds that is a good subjective test.

“A lot of the exercises we do are about empathy. It is about putting yourself in the shoes of another person and seeing it from their perspective,” she says.

There is no legislation that compels employers in Cayman to have sexual harassment policies, let alone hold training sessions or workshops for staff.

Many companies in Cayman, particularly those with a global presence, are “ahead of the curve” and have policies with clear guidelines for reporting and protection for complainants, says Blekaitis, programme manager for the Employee Assistance Programme.

In other cases, circumstances have forced employers to act.

The Port Authority is one high-profile example. When nine female employees alleged sexual misconduct by a senior staff member, government’s internal audit unit was assigned to investigate.

Though the allegations were not substantiated, the report highlighted a “subset of behavioural issues” and the authority sought the support of the EAP to help introduce new policies to change the workplace culture.

The non-profit has done similar work with scores of companies across Cayman.

Blekaitis believes all employers should have clear policies, backed up by training, so workers understand what constitutes sexual harassment and bullying as well as the consequences.

One of the first steps, she says, is getting people – mostly but not exclusively men – to understand that silence does not equal consent.

“People won’t tell you to stop, they will just stop associating with you,” she says.

In general, she finds that most employees are receptive to the training, though “there is always one person that pushes the boundaries and says ‘I could harass you any time’”.

She tries to teach them in small groups about the effects of their actions.

Sometimes she asks, “How would it impact your behaviour to know that person feels sick to be in a meeting with you?”

For employers that see things in simple monetary terms, she says there is an economic incentive to create a healthy workplace culture when it comes to sexual harassment and bullying.

Citing US statistics, she says 60% of people who experience sexual harassment, either directly or indirectly, will leave the company.

“That is a real drain on your business,” she warns.

HR managers on the frontlines

Even among the companies that do have robust sexual-harassment policies, there is a sense that incidents are under-reported.

Valerie Hoppe, director of human resources at the Marriott Beach Resort, said the hotel has strict guidelines that are spelled out to new employees.

“They sign a policy on day one; it is non-negotiable,” she says.

Despite the policy, or perhaps because of it, Hoppe says she sees very few complaints – no more than a handful a year.

In some cases, those can be as simple as a manager liking a picture on social media.

In other cases it is inappropriate jokes. Most times, she says, the complainant is not looking for any action other than for the behaviour to stop.

“It is not always egregious stalking or assault – that sort of thing is rare in my experience,” she said.

When incidents are reported, action can range from a simple reminder of the policies to a formal memo, coaching session or, in the most serious cases, dismissal.

The Marriott also has a non-retaliation policy that protects staff from a manager who is the subject of a complaint trying to get back at the employee.

Though many larger firms have sexual-harassment policies and training, it is not the norm for ‘mom and pop’ operations, says Dawn McLean-Brady, an HR professional who is also president of the Cayman Islands Small Business Association.

McLean-Brady, who runs three businesses, says she does have policies and procedures in place, but it is her opinion that a large number of small businesses do not.

In many of those companies, she says, the manager doubles as the head of HR, making it difficult to realistically report complaints that involve the boss.

“I would say a number of sexual-harassment incidents in the workplace is probably under-reported,” she says.

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