Know that there are laws on the books to protect you!
It’s an issue that may be prevalent in many workplace settings in The Bahamas, but for some reason, it’s not taken seriously when it should be: sexual harassment.
Whether it is a suggestive look, comment or inappropriately touching the body part of a male or female, sexual harassment in the workplace is real and should be reported.
In the Bahamas, however, suggestive comments are sometimes ignored and touches are in some cases viewed as the norm.
We also live in a culture where speaking to another person comes with a playful touch on the hand or shoulder, but in the workplace, these touches can be viewed by some as inappropriate.
Sharon Rolle, a lawyer at Halsbury Chambers told Eyewitness News that sexual harassment in the workplace is real, and there are laws on the books to protect those who are silently enduring the sexual advances of others.
The Sexual Offences Act states that anybody who is guilty of the offense of sexual harassment should be liable to a fine of $5,000 or imprisonment for two years or both.
The Sexual Harassment Act defines sexual harassment as any person who is soliciting favours from another person under any holding out, promise, or threat of the grant or imposition of any favour, benefit, advantage or disadvantage.
“Sexual harassment can involve someone touching inappropriately. It can be inappropriate sexual remarks or anything that makes a person feel uncomfortable based on your sexuality,” Rolle explained.
“The person does not have to touch you. It can just be comments, and we live in a society where people love to touch and people like to make remarks, so everybody reacts differently to comments and to the way that you touch them.
“With someone it [inappropriate touching and remarks] may be fine, but with somebody else, based on an experience they had in the past, they may be taken aback by it.”
Also, based on the definitions in the Sexual Offences Act, sexual harassment does not only include the employee, but can also include an employer or someone in authority who is being subject to sexual harassment from an aggressive employee.
“It can be the employee trying to stop someone in authority from punishing them or to get a promotion; or it can be the employer who is holding out on a promotion or something of this nature in exchange for sexual favour.”
If someone is being sexually harassed in the workplace, Rolle said the first step should be to make sure that the person who is harassing you is aware that you are not consenting to their behavior. There should be no misunderstanding, she said, of whether or not you like what is happening.
“If you are consenting to a behavior, of course you then cannot go back and complain about it,” Rolle explained.
“So once you would have made it clear to the perpetrator that this is not acceptable, I would say that your next step then would be if it happens again to go and report it to the office manager or follow whatever guidelines you may have in your employee handbook.
“I suppose if you are not satisfied with those results and the behavior continues, then it is a criminal offense, and so you are able to go into the appropriate police station and report the matter.”
The legal professional said sexual harassment is also a “civil tort” which means that in addition to bringing the matter to the attention of the police, a person can also sue the company – or the person in particular – for anything negative resulting out of the harassment.
But in many cases Rolle said that sexual harassment in the workplace is not reported and many matters are settled out of court.
“Also, anytime you have cases involving persons being sexually harassed in any way, sometimes it is very difficult for those victims to come forward,” Rolle explained.
“Unless you have witnesses there is the question of whether or not you are telling the truth as opposed to the other person who is perpetrating these acts against you.
“I think sometimes this is a real concern for the victims. It is basically your word against mine and so the judge is left to determine, ‘am I going to believe him or am I going to believe her,’” Rolle explained. “It has to be that your story is more believable on a balance of probability than the other side.”
Rolle advised that if someone is being sexually harassed in the workplace they should follow the protocols that may be in their employee handbook. If there is no employee handbook, the person should immediately let the harasser know that they are not ok with their behavior and report the matter to the Human Resources Department or the office manager.
“I would suggest even that you put it in writing so that there is a paper trail that you always refer back to and in addition to that, where the behavior continues, I suggest that you not only report it to a police officer but you also seek legal counsel to assist you in dealing with the matter.”
Rolle strongly advises persons who are sexually harassed in the workplace to prepare themselves for whatever consequences may follow, depending on the parties involved.
“The reality is it may result in you losing your job and so you have to prepare yourself for this,” she warned. “But would say that a piece of mind and also security for yourself is worth more than anything else in the world.”
Rolle concluded that one would find that when an employee has a strong case they would keep it on the downlow because employers in The Bahamas are also under statutory duty to provide a safe workplace for employees.
“In this case you are not limited to suing the perpetrator, but you can also sue the company itself when nothing is done as the company would be in breech of their statutory duty to provide a safe and healthy work environment for you.”