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Experts warn of travel industry's sexual harassment exposure

December 21, 2017

By Michelle Baran, Travel Weekly (The recent barrage of high-profile sexual harassment allegations emerging in industries ranging from film to politics to media serves as an opportunity for travel companies, too, to reflect on where they stand on the issue and to assess whether they are doing enough, not least because of the unique nature of the travel business.

Jeff Ment, a travel lawyer and partner with Connecticut-based Silver Golub & Teitell, said, "The problem that we have in travel is that, for better or worse, there's often a sexiness about travel, there's a glamour to travel. It's alluring. It's a fine line, but we need to be ever so mindful that there is a line and that employees have to remain on the right side of the line."

Ment, who provides legal advice to travel companies on myriad issues, said the fact that travel companies often have employees and independent contractors representing them in far-flung destinations where they are interacting with guests face-to-face, exposes them to two levels of risk when it comes to sexual harassment allegations: people from within the company making claims against other employees and guests making claims against the company.

Casper Urhammer, global CEO of Contiki, a tour operator that caters to the 18-to-35 market, acknowledged there is a line between what guests do and want to make of their vacation experiences and what is acceptable behavior for the numerous tour guides and employees who represent the Contiki brand around the world.

"The thing is, we're not babysitters," Urhammer said. "We're not that type of company that tells [customers] what to do. Our job is to tell them what our policies are."

He added that when it comes to Contiki employees having intimate or sexual relations with guests, "that's a no-go. If we find out that our staff has been involved in any sexual activity or has even just gone over the line a little bit, that's grounds for dismissal. We don't have a tolerance policy toward that."

Paul Wiseman, the former president of Trafalgar who now serves as president of his own corporate training company, Partner Learning Solutions, said that when he takes on new clients, many of which are travel companies, sexual harassment complaints or cases can arise as one of the issues a company is grappling with or wants to be sure to avoid. While Wiseman doesn't offer sexual harassment training himself, his advice to clients on this issue is clear.

"My recommendation to the company is going to be non-negotiable. They absolutely must have compulsory sexual harassment training in their organization. I do not think that is in any way, shape or form optional for any size company," Wiseman said.

But Ment said that for companies that truly want to avoid having to deal with the legal, financial and image ramifications that result from sexual harassment allegations, simply having or strictly enforcing sexual harassment policies isn't enough anymore. The entire conversation and corporate culture around sexual harassment need to evolve.

"This is a time for a shake-up," Ment said. "It's not enough to simply say, 'Sexual harassment is not tolerated at this company.' It's not enough, because you need to describe what can be viewed by others as harassment, [through] the lens of the guest or the passenger. ... Everyone is under the microscope now, and so we have to adapt to that, because these issues are real. They can't be swept under the rug. They have to be dealt with head-on."

Rather than just lecturing employees about what constitutes sexual harassment and the consequences it can have, he said, companies should be involving their employees in group-dynamics training and getting them to really think about what is appropriate and why, and ultimately finding new ways to connect with them so the issue hits home.

It's a problem that has and will continue to touch the travel industry, just as it has other industries, Ment said. Earlier this year, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed charges against three Hawaiian tourism companies under the same management that allegedly failed to take action when employees complained about sexual harassment by their president.

According to an EEOC statement about the suit, the harassment dated back to 2006 and involved four male claimants who all said they were subjected to unwanted sexual comments and advances.

"It's stuff that companies can't afford to have happen to them in the court of public opinion," Ment said. "I think that that's more damaging than money in some instances, because the blogging and the social media ... can destroy the image of a company."

In an industry that is always training and preparing for the next crisis, he said, sexual harassment should be viewed as a potential major crisis.

"We train for bus crashes," he said. "We train for untimely deaths on tours. We need to train for this, too, because it's as likely ... as the things that we already train for but hope to never have happen to us."

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