Housekeepers: an easy target for sexual harassment

Hotel housekeeping staff can often describe tale-after-tale of inappropriate guest behaviour, most of which they can laugh off. Many, however, can also detail more serious behaviours, from naked guests answering the door to inappropriate touching or even being cornered in a quiet room by an amorous guest who is requesting “extras”!

Sexual harassment in hospitality hit the international news this month due to two separate incidents of alleged sexual assault of hotel room maids by athletes arrested at the Rio Olympics. So, how commonplace are these type of incidents in the industry. Why do they occur and are housekeeping staff more at risk?

HR specialist and sexual harassment in the workplace expert, Natasha Hawker of Employee Matters revealed that sexual harassment within the hospitality industry is fairly commonplace, especially in the housekeeping department with many incidents going unreported.

She explained that, unfortunately, sexual harassment in the workplace is still a huge problem and “we still have a long way to go” for a host of reasons. Commonly, sexual harassment occurs for historical reasons, where the behaviour is seen as acceptable and left unchallenged. Moreover, sexual harassment can only happen when a perpetrator is given the opportunity.

Therefore, housekeeping staff tend to be more at risk because there may be a societal pressure to believe that hotel guests are always right and so employees may have been encouraged to turn a blind eye or laugh off an uncomfortable situation. This could be due to an employer’s unwillingness to challenge their customer’s behaviour or perhaps stems from the need to avoid adverse brand publicity.

The nature of a housekeeper’s job also gives a potential perpetrator plenty of opportunity to strike, guest room cleaning duties often-times dictate that a housekeeper is alone, cleaning in a quiet room at the end of an empty corridor without back-up or the reassurance of a panic button.

Furthermore, housekeeping staff may be ill-trained to deal with these types of situations and may under-report incidents. Some employees in this particular field could be more vulnerable and less empowered and English may well be a second language. This can lead to miscommunication, and an “unwillingness to rock the boat” or risk their job by voicing a complaint.

Sexual harassment in the workplace is a serious offence and charges can be brought under workplace health and safety legislation; however, when harassment is directed at staff by guests, the matter is more complicated.

According to Ms Hawker, within this industry it is especially important for employers to be proactive and to have a sexual harassment policy that extends to guests and customers.

She explained: “Every business must have a sexual harassment policy that details preventative measures, and how incidents should be reported and managed. Sexual harassment training and education must be part of every employee’s induction and I would go so far as to suggest that every housekeeping employee should be given a script of how to best respond if they are subjected to an inappropriate sexual advance.”

“Remember that as an employer you have a duty of care to your staff under workplace health and safety, and you must do everything that you can to prevent sexual harassment and deal with any complaints in methodical and effective way.”

Ms Hawker also suggests that a statement should be added to every hospitality guest welcome pack, asserting that sexual harassment will, under no circumstances, be tolerated and that all incidents will be taken very seriously, leading to police action as a possible consequence.

Employers, you are responsible for the welfare of your staff as they go about their duties, so take a proactive stance against any form of sexual harassment: educate, guide, respect and offer your staff assistance, education, safety and support.

Provide a safe environment for your housekeeping staff and promote a workplace that has zero tolerance for any kind of sexual harassment.

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