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Yaneek Page Smallbiz should embrace upsides of the new sexual-harassment law

A positive mindset is a distinctive characteristic that often sets entrepreneurs and business owners apart from many.

Where some can only see trials and hazards, we intuitively dig below the surface to uncover solutions and opportunities: case in point, the new sexual harassment law.

On July 3, the Sexual Harassment [Protection and Prevention] Act 2021 came into effect, requiring anyone who employs another person to document and implement a sexual-harassment policy within a year, among other new obligations.

It’s an exceptionally positive and overdue development for the country.

The new legislation stipulates that employers execute several duties and activities to ensure an environment that is free of sexual harassment and that they go further to take swift action once they are aware of harassment or reports of harassment.

Another positive development is the discouragement of retaliation against victims, and, potentially, strict confidentiality of their reports. Interestingly, some of the duties under the act also extend to people in charge and not employers alone. This will necessitate the nurturing of a culture of anti-harassment, which is another positive and needed change for many workplaces.

The other encouraging development is that the legislation is relatively easy to read and understand although it may be helpful to seek the interpretation of legal or labour law specialists when planning for implementation and sensitisation of staff, suppliers, contractors, and key stakeholders.

There are many implications for the way we do business, with whom we do business, the norms we must unlearn and reject, and the new dispensation we should all engender. This leads us to an important point that must be emphasised here: as with most legislation that affects MSMEs – which account for 80 per cent of Jamaican jobs – there are considerable cost, knowledge, and resource constraints that can hinder the successful adoption and adherence with new laws.

Microbusinesses, in particular, will require targeted and enhanced support. So far, the community outreach and support in this area has been lagging. For example, there are no resources readily available for small businesses on the websites or social media pages of the Ministry of Industry, Investment & Commerce, which has oversight of the sector, dealing with the implementation of the Sexual Harassment Act.

Unfortunately, up to the time of submission of this article, the act had not yet been published on the website of the Ministry of Justice. However, readers should be able to buy a copy from Jamaica Printing Services (1992) Limited, located at Duke Street in Kingston.

Legislation that aims to create a safer and more respectful environment for people to work should be embraced wholeheartedly by businesses and well-thinking citizens.

An even more compelling reason to pledge support to creating spaces free from sexual harassment is that Jamaica has been plagued by intolerably high levels of sexual violence and abuse against women and girls. Further, several development partners and agencies have also reported that boys and men appeared to have even greater disincentives to reporting sexual assaults than women.

Persuasive moral incentives aside, anti-sexual-harassment cultures have been shown to be good for business for various reasons:

It can promote a positive work environment: One of the key facets of a positive work environment is safety. Where employees feel safe, respected, and free from harassment, there is also usually an atmosphere of increased productivity, contentment, creativity, and kindness. Workers can’t produce their best output when they are constantly facing harassment.

It supports productivity and employee well-being: Studies have shown that environments where harassment is rampant have a debilitating negative impact on employees’ physical and mental health. Left unchecked, these businesses tend to suffer from high levels of absenteeism, low morale, constant internal conflict, and tensions and even acts of sabotage against the entity, where employees believe they cannot get justice.

It supports the retention of talent: Sexual harassment drives high employee turnover and inhibits talent acquisition and retention, especially in a small society. As I have shared previously in this space, small businesses struggle to attract and retain talent for many reasons, including limited resources, uncompetitive remuneration, limited benefits and scope for career development, lower profile, and so on. Small businesses must give themselves an advantage by implementing and passionately embracing a harassment-free workspace.

Indeed, slow or inadequate implementation will present another disincentive to attracting exceptional talent.

It supports meritocracy: One of the ugly consequences of sexual harassment in the workplace is the unfair advantage and disadvantage that many either benefit from or suffer from as a result of inappropriate conduct by people in positions of power and authority who misuse their privilege to afford or deny opportunities to others. Sexual- harassment legislation creates an enabling space and momentum for merit-based attainment.

And it safeguards reputation and mitigates legal and financial risks: Small businesses can leverage the sexual-harassment legislation to their benefit and advantage to create an environment that is safe not only for their staff members, but also for their customers who also often face unwanted sexual advances and other types of sexual harassment from employees. This can proactively guard the reputation of the business and its leaders and limit legal exposure and costs associated with improper conduct.

Embracing the new sexual-harassment law, and actively driving its successful implementation, should be seen and framed as a positive investment in the future of the business and a better Jamaica for all.

One love!

– Yaneek Page is the programme lead for Market Entry USA, and a certified trainer in entrepreneurship.

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