UAE workplace 'culture shift needed' to protect staff reporting harassment

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - A law designed to tackle sexual harassment is a step in the right direction but a workplace culture shift is needed to ensure employees are better protected.

Policies must be better enforced to ensure employees can approach management about bullying or sexual harassment, some of the country’s top human resource professionals said.

“There is a big unspoken issue about sexual harassment and harassment at the workplace," said Despo Michaelides, chief human resources officer at AXA Insurance Gulf.

"There is bullying but people are too scared to speak up because their residency permits are linked to their work.

There is bullying but people are too scared to speak up because their residency permits are linked to their work

Despo Michaelides, AXA Insurance Gulf

"Bullying does take place and those are challenges here because people think ‘what is going to happen to me if I complain? Is someone else going to lay a charge on me? Am I going to lose my job?’"

The UAE amended a federal law toughening the punishment for sexual harassment to up to a year in prison and / or a fine of no less than Dh10,000. People convicted of sexually harassing someone they have some form of authority over risk a minimum of two years in prison, a fine of no less than Dh50,000 or both.

"Now that the regulation has changed, in terms of recognising sexual harassment as a law with penalties, I think people will see a huge difference where employees will speak up and will not be scared," said Ms Michaelides.

AXA Gulf is one company in the UAE that has set up a system of disciplinary hearings for suspected cases of misconduct.

The organisation established a whistle-blower policy to protect the person filing a complaint and have designated someone to thoroughly investigate such reports.

"I have lobbied a lot with ministries here on harassment and sexual harassment and having dismissed people at AXA Gulf for harassment and sexual harassment sets an example," she said.

She told of a case where two men had been harassing several women in the office and were eventually dismissed for their behaviour.

"[The] women who had been harassed who spoke up. Even men who observed the behaviour spoke up," she said.

Debbie Kristiansen, chief executive of Novo Cinemas, speaks with Despo Michaelides, Charles Haworth at a discussion of women in the workplace. Chris Whiteoak / The National

Louise Karim, managing director at Women@Work, a career platform for women, said cases of bullying can often be swept under the rug.

She suggested companies designate someone, from outside the HR department, who employees could feel comfortable speaking to about such issues.

"A lot of people are nervous to do that because they’re worried they will be seen as a trouble maker or lose their job … especially single mothers who are sole providers. If they are in such a situation, it is a difficult conversation to have.

"If you are accusing someone senior to you, it can be quite scary."

She said that, while multinational organisations could be better set up to support employees, some smaller companies still do not have strong policies in place.

At GE Renewable Energy's Mena office, each employee has access to a live link on their computer through which they can file a complaint with the option of it being anonymous.

The organisation also has dedicated investigators and maintains a zero-tolerance policy against harassment.

Charles Haworth, commercial director at General Electric-owned GE Renewable Energy's Mena office said it was important to introduce such a stand into the culture of a company.

"If people are facing bullying and harassment, there should be no question that they should be able to raise their voice and have it reviewed by an independent party.

"If you don’t have that culture you will run into a lot of problems."

Rebecca Jeffs, Middle East HR director at Serco Middle East, a global outsourcing company that employs more than 4,500 people in the region and operates Metro, said their company had instilled a “speak-up culture” and encouraged staff to support each other.

"Find your friends and you allies in the organisation who will stand alongside you or with you," she said.

According to a 2017 ABC Washington Post poll, 64 per cent Americans said sexual harassment in the workplace was a serious problem while 54 per cent of women had faced unwanted advances from colleagues or seniors.

Workplace harassment was brought to the fore two years ago with the rise of the #MeToo movement, prompted by more than 20 women accusing former film producer Harvey Weinstein of sexual abuse.

However, a 2017 survey by the American television network, National Broadcasting Company, found that only one in five companies in the US worked to address issues of sexual harassment in the aftermath of the movement.

A 28-year-old former resident of the UAE said she faced harassment at her workplace in Dubai from 2014 to 2017.

The British woman said, though others witnessed what was happening, she had no support from her colleagues or seniors throughout her ordeal.

"I find it difficult to put into words my experience with workplace harassment. The harasser was a managing director, but the silent witnesses and apathetic bystanders were companywide.

"What started as bigoted bullying, unfounded harshness and petty power plays evolved into sociopathic behaviour causing severe mental and emotional trauma,” she said.

The employee complained to colleagues, her manager in Dubai, and senior management across several international offices.

I never understood everyone's reluctance to step in, especially among those senior and others who witnessed the physical aspect of the abuse first-hand

"Unfortunately, by the time the harasser was eventually fired, too much damage had been done," she said.

"I never understood everyone's reluctance to step in, especially among those senior to the harasser and others who witnessed the physical aspect of the abuse first-hand, but I've learnt that there is an all too common reluctance across the hierarchy to address — let alone punish — workplace harassment."

She called for an occupational health hotline to be made available to anyone wishing to submit a complaint or seek help.

"All complaints should be taken seriously and followed up on immediately, with significant consequences … imposed on both aggressors and the companies sheltering them," she said.

She called on employees to check that their current or prospective employer has and follows a strict code of conduct with sophisticated HR protocols and procedures in place regardless whether or not they are currently experiencing harassment.

"If I could give my younger abused self advice though, it would be to leave straight away in 2014 and never look back, because the only lasting, resilient aspect of my experience has been the trauma."

Updated: December 8, 2019 11:26 AM

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