An Inquiry Into Employees’ Experiences of Sexual Harassment by Customers in the Cook Islands Hospitality Industry

Sadaraka, Lisa Eitiare
Schänzel, Heike
Poulston, Jill
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Master of International Hospitality Management
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Auckland University of Technology

Significant progress has been made in recent years towards understanding the nature of workplace sexual harassment. Useful theories have been developed to explain causality, response, tolerance, impact and prevention. Studies indicate that sexual harassment is widespread across all sectors of the workplace, but is particularly prevalent in the hospitality industry and that customers are, generally, the main perpetrators. However, despite extensive research into workplace sexual harassment, studies have focused predominantly on the United States, United Kingdom and Europe, creating a gap in the literature within the Pacific and in particular, Polynesia. Furthermore, while the hospitality industry worldwide has a reputation for a high incidence of sexual harassment, no knowledge exists on the phenomenon in the Cook Islands hospitality industry. Tourism is the key economic driver and a major employment provider for the Cook Islands. Accordingly, the unexplored nature of sexual harassment in this location provided the rationale for this study.

The aim of the study was to investigate the sexual harassment experiences of Cook Islands hospitality employees, by customers, and to understand what social and environmental factors influence this behaviour. Employees’ response and tolerance to customer harassment was also explored, as was the extent to which the harassment affected them. Furthermore, hospitality employers were also interviewed to identify incongruities in attitudes and perceptions to sexual harassment, between employees and employers. The qualitative interpretive methodology adopted for the study involved a grounded theory approach incorporating a talanoa perspective. This approach was highly inductive, enabling in-depth understanding and insight into employees’ experiences of customer harassment. The exploratory case study involved semi-structured interviews with 32 participants in the case location: Rarotonga, Cook Islands. An added dimension to the study was that the research included both male and female participants to identify gender differences in attitudes and perceptions to sexual harassment. The findings suggest that customer harassment in the Cook Islands hospitality industry is not uncommon and can be attributed to several key factors, a number of which can be linked to existing causality models. The most significant outcome of this research are the four new themes and two overarching concepts that emerged on causality that are unique to this study and cannot be linked to the current body of knowledge. The four new themes include cultural norms, the hospitable nature of Cook Islanders, destination marketing and cultural dance and costumes. The two overarching concepts are cultural commodification and ‘mātaunga Māori’. These emergent concepts and themes make a significant contribution to the literature as they provide new perspectives into the causality of sexual harassment by customers. As this is the first study of its kind to be conducted in the Cook Islands, the study provides in-depth understanding into Cook Islands hospitality employees’ experiences of sexual harassment by customers. While the study is situated within the hospitality industry, the findings identify some broader socio-cultural implications of tourism development in the case location. The study makes a significant contribution to the hospitality and tourism industry, both in the Cook Islands and the wider Pacific, offering unique insights into customer perpetrated harassment in the Pacific region.

Sexual harassment , Case study , Cook Islands , Employees , Customers , Hospitality industry , Causality , Impact , Tolerance , Response
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