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HomeNewsArchivesUndercurrents: Sexual Harassment Hard to Prove, Perilous to Ignore

Undercurrents: Sexual Harassment Hard to Prove, Perilous to Ignore

A regular Source feature, Undercurrents explores issues, ideas and events as they develop beneath the surface in the Virgin Islands community.

“Bernard” was a friendly guy, very pleasant. But he was big and seemed more than a little clumsy.

He kept apologizing for bumping into women in the office.

Until one day, when a female co-worker snapped, “Bernard, why is it that Joe never bumps into me and you always do?

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“I work with Joe all the time and he has no trouble walking past me. Not once in years has he ever bumped into me, but every time we’re in the same room, you brush up against me. Why is that?”

The names are changed, but the incident is real, and it’s emblematic.

In recent weeks, two sexual harassment cases have grabbed headlines, one involving the Roy L. Schneider Hospital and one involving the V.I. Legislature. In both cases, a female worker complained of longstanding harassment from a co-worker and alleged that her employer did not properly respond to her complaints or protect her from the abuse.

Just how prevalent are these kinds of complaints? And how common is workplace sexual harassment in the Virgin Islands?

The answer to the second question depends on a number of things, including who you ask and how you define the problem.

“I think it’s drastically under-reported,” said Lynn Spencer, executive director of the V.I. Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Council. “A lot of people are afraid to file (a complaint)” and they are often discouraged from doing so, even by their co-workers. “People feel like they’re out there all alone.”

A former Human Resources director, who did not want her named used to protect case confidentiality, agreed that some workers are afraid to come forward because of possible repercussions. “Sometimes people think their job is on the line.”

As for the scope of the problem, she said, “None of these things, I’d say, happen a lot, but they happen …I don’t think it’s widespread, but one or two cases is too many.”

The V.I. Labor Department reported 14 complaints were filed with the department in fiscal year 2012.

Lavern Marsh-Cole investigates those complaints for Labor. She also conducts training for employers and for employees in both the public and private sector. A labor relations specialist, she is certified for investigation work by the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and certified for training by the local Public Employees Relations Board.

Marsh-Cole said there are basically two types of workplace sexual harassment. In a quid pro quo situation, a supervisor demands some sort of sexual favor in exchange for something he or she controls: a promotion, or better hours, or the proverbial corner office, or, sometimes, just continued employment. It may be direct and blatant, or it may be implied.

Though not always easy to prove, a quid pro quo is generally more obvious at least than the other type of sexual harassment, “hostile environment.”

“Every case is individual,” said Marsh-Cole. It’s based on intent and perception, she said.

What one person sees as camaraderie, another may see as invasive. What one sees as joking, another sees as demeaning. There can be vast differences between individuals, and sometimes these are culture-based.

“Different cultures accept different things,” she said. “Not because you’re accustomed to it does it mean it is acceptable to others.”

She added, “It’s deciding your space, too. Many times (in training sessions) I talk about personal space.”

If you are engaging with a co-worker and he or she steps back, take the cue that you are invading that individual’s personal space. Don’t advance. And, she said, “Keep your hands to yourself. It’s elementary.”

Elementary, but sometimes difficult for a person who is naturally effusive.

The former Human Resources director recalled one male employee who was accustomed to greeting the women in the office with something along the lines of “Morning, you’re looking beautiful today.” Told that one of his co-workers was offended and that he needed to change his behavior, he responded, “You gotta be kidding. I don’t even think of her as a woman.”

A “hostile environment” may be a place where some staff routinely tell crude jokes, or where two co-workers are openly engaging in an extra-marital affair, she said. It’s what makes someone uncomfortable.

In response, management takes a “preventive” posture. She found herself having to counsel some female employees on proper workplace attire and having to tell some men they had to remove their swimsuit calendars.

“You cannot ignore a complaint,” even if it seems unfounded, she said. “You must investigate. And you must document.”

Besides, there are legitimate complaints that deserve to be aired.

“It’s one of those ugly things,” she said. Often it ends up branding both the accuser and the accused. In her experience, some people had reason to complain but kept quiet. Some spoke up, and suffered the consequences of being ostracized as a troublemaker. And some filed complaints and got monetary awards, either as settlements or in court, but “money’s not always a cure.”

“You have to be almost brave to bring a case,” and not everyone who is harassed will complain. “That’s why some people get away with it,” she said.

Marsh-Cole said education is important for workers and for management. She stresses to both the need to keep accurate records, and to be aware of workers’ rights. She’s been conducting workshops since 2006 and estimated she’s trained about 10,000 people.

The law says that all employers in the territory must have a written policy concerning sexual harassment, she said, and any business with five or more employees is required to have training in the subject.

Although it’s not required, she said she has conducted retraining at some businesses too, if it is requested.

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A regular Source feature, Undercurrents explores issues, ideas and events as they develop beneath the surface in the Virgin Islands community. “Bernard” was a friendly guy, very pleasant. But he was big and seemed more than a little clumsy. He kept apologizing for bumping into women in the office. Until one day, when a female co-worker snapped, “Bernard, why is it that Joe never bumps into me and you always do? "I work with Joe all the time and he has no trouble walking past me. Not once in years has he ever bumped into me, but every time we’re in the same room, you brush up against me. Why is that?” The names are changed, but the incident is real, and it’s emblematic. In recent weeks, two sexual harassment cases have grabbed headlines, one involving the Roy L. Schneider Hospital and one involving the V.I. Legislature. In both cases, a female worker complained of longstanding harassment from a co-worker and alleged that her employer did not properly respond to her complaints or protect her from the abuse. Just how prevalent are these kinds of complaints? And how common is workplace sexual harassment in the Virgin Islands? The answer to the second question depends on a number of things, including who you ask and how you define the problem. “I think it’s drastically under-reported,” said Lynn Spencer, executive director of the V.I. Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Council. “A lot of people are afraid to file (a complaint)” and they are often discouraged from doing so, even by their co-workers. “People feel like they’re out there all alone.” A former Human Resources director, who did not want her named used to protect case confidentiality, agreed that some workers are afraid to come forward because of possible repercussions. “Sometimes people think their job is on the line.” As for the scope of the problem, she said, “None of these things, I’d say, happen a lot, but they happen …I don’t think it’s widespread, but one or two cases is too many.” The V.I. Labor Department reported 14 complaints were filed with the department in fiscal year 2012. Lavern Marsh-Cole investigates those complaints for Labor. She also conducts training for employers and for employees in both the public and private sector. A labor relations specialist, she is certified for investigation work by the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and certified for training by the local Public Employees Relations Board. Marsh-Cole said there are basically two types of workplace sexual harassment. In a quid pro quo situation, a supervisor demands some sort of sexual favor in exchange for something he or she controls: a promotion, or better hours, or the proverbial corner office, or, sometimes, just continued employment. It may be direct and blatant, or it may be implied. Though not always easy to prove, a quid pro quo is generally more obvious at least than the other type of sexual harassment, “hostile environment.” “Every case is individual,” said Marsh-Cole. It’s based on intent and perception, she said. What one person sees as camaraderie, another may see as invasive. What one sees as joking, another sees as demeaning. There can be vast differences between individuals, and sometimes these are culture-based. “Different cultures accept different things,” she said. “Not because you’re accustomed to it does it mean it is acceptable to others.” She added, “It’s deciding your space, too. Many times (in training sessions) I talk about personal space.” If you are engaging with a co-worker and he or she steps back, take the cue that you are invading that individual’s personal space. Don’t advance. And, she said, “Keep your hands to yourself. It’s elementary.” Elementary, but sometimes difficult for a person who is naturally effusive. The former Human Resources director recalled one male employee who was accustomed to greeting the women in the office with something along the lines of “Morning, you’re looking beautiful today.” Told that one of his co-workers was offended and that he needed to change his behavior, he responded, “You gotta be kidding. I don’t even think of her as a woman.” A “hostile environment” may be a place where some staff routinely tell crude jokes, or where two co-workers are openly engaging in an extra-marital affair, she said. It’s what makes someone uncomfortable. In response, management takes a “preventive” posture. She found herself having to counsel some female employees on proper workplace attire and having to tell some men they had to remove their swimsuit calendars. “You cannot ignore a complaint,” even if it seems unfounded, she said. “You must investigate. And you must document.” Besides, there are legitimate complaints that deserve to be aired. “It’s one of those ugly things,” she said. Often it ends up branding both the accuser and the accused. In her experience, some people had reason to complain but kept quiet. Some spoke up, and suffered the consequences of being ostracized as a troublemaker. And some filed complaints and got monetary awards, either as settlements or in court, but “money’s not always a cure.” “You have to be almost brave to bring a case,” and not everyone who is harassed will complain. “That’s why some people get away with it,” she said. Marsh-Cole said education is important for workers and for management. She stresses to both the need to keep accurate records, and to be aware of workers’ rights. She’s been conducting workshops since 2006 and estimated she’s trained about 10,000 people. The law says that all employers in the territory must have a written policy concerning sexual harassment, she said, and any business with five or more employees is required to have training in the subject. Although it’s not required, she said she has conducted retraining at some businesses too, if it is requested.