Addressing the silent problem

Sexual harassment in a workplace is a serious issue that needs to be handled carefully. HRM finds out what companies are doing to educate their employees and what they can do to create a safe and dignified environment

The dark and poignant movie, North Country, depicts female employees in a US construction company subjected to sexual harassment by their male colleagues – from taunts to physical abuse. By the end of the movie, the heroine of the show goes on to sue the company with her colleagues and win millions of dollars in compensation. The most disturbing fact of the film was that it was based on a true story.

It is just one of the serious workplace harassment cases that have been portrayed in media in the recent years. The issue of sexual harassment in the workplace has been getting more attention over the past decade, especially in Asia. In the 1990s, governments around the region, including those in India, Thailand and Malaysia, have enacted laws against workplace harassment, while government bodies and women’s organisations have advocated changes or heightened awareness of this problem.

Employers too have an important role in creating a safe workplace for their employees through clear HR policies, grievance procedures as well as raising awareness of the hazards of workplace harassment.

The case against harassment

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) conducted a comprehensive study, Action against Sexual Harassment at Work in Asia and the Pacific, which covers over a range of issues, from a definition of sexual harassment through to personal accounts and the benefits of workplace training in the issue.

The ILO specifically defines workplace harassment as “unwelcomed sexual advances or verbal or physical conduct” that could affect a person’s work productivity, or which creates a hostile or offensive working environment.

The ILO report includes case studies from around Asia and the Pacific region, and in many cases, victims of workplace sexual harassment refuse to report it for a variety of reasons, from fear of losing their jobs to being stigmatised in society as well as not knowing who to report it to.

Corinna Lim, Executive Director, Association of Women for Action & Research (AWARE), says the tricky issue of workplace harassment is that “it is tied to a job and depending on the culture of the person he or she might not want to talk about it”.

Research shows that victims of workplace harassment in Singapore can be both women and men, though women are affected more. In a survey of 500 people by AWARE, Research Study on Workplace Sexual Harassment (2008), 58% of women and 42% of men indicated they had been harassed at work.

The report also revealed that young people are most likely to be targeted. Lim says that young people who are in their first or second years at work are most likely to be harassed as “they are eager to please and perpetrators are likely to target them as they are easy prey”.

Research also shows that in many cases, perpetrators are either a colleague or manager. In the AWARE study, 27% were harassed by their colleagues while 17% were harassed by their superiors.

Experts say that besides affecting the victim, the issue also affects organisations as it could lead to workplace tensions, lower productivity as well as damage the company’s reputation. In worst case scenarios, companies have had lawsuits filed against them.

“The negative effects of harassment are, however, by no means confined to the individual,” explains Ian Chambers, Director of Bangkok Area Office and East Asia Multidisciplinary Advisory Team, in the ILO report. “Research has shown very clearly that workplaces in which harassment is allowed to occur tend to have sharply falling productivity. Sexual harassment is bad for business, as well as being ethically and socially unacceptable.”

Laying down the rules

It is essential for companies to develop, communicate and then enforce specific policies against workplace harassment. According to the AWARE research, 66% of respondents were not aware of any policy in their organisation, whereas 50% stated that they were aware of a superior or colleague they could approach about the issue.

“HR should make it very clear they have policies in place. One, it should be a written policy. Two, the policy should be clear, that people know if this happens, that will happen next. Three, the investigation needs to be done well,” Lim explains.

One company that has strict regulations against workplace harassment is Crowne Plaza Changi Airport. “We adopt a zero tolerance stance regarding this issue and will not allow any employee to be subjected to any form of sexual harassment from colleagues, guests, clients or suppliers,” says James Lee, the hotel’s director of HR.

At Crowne Plaza, employees know the proper policies in place with regards to this issue and can file a formal complaint with HR when an incident occurs, states Lee. Throughout the investigation, the complainant will be moved away from his or her work area or the alleged harasser’s work area. For serious cases, the alleged harasser can be suspended on full pay while investigations are going on. Moreover, if the harasser is found guilty, the person would have to undergo counselling or be subjected to disciplinary action which includes dismissal from work.

Creating awareness through training

Training is essential in creating awareness in this issue and Crowne Plaza ensures that all its employees are “aware and made to understand what workplace sexual harassment is,” says Lee.

All employees undergo a one-hour sexual harassment awareness training within 28 days of joining the company. Also, two hours of mandatory refresher training is conducted each year while individual work departments run a 10-minute training twice a year.

More companies are also sending their managers and employees to sexual harassment awareness workshops run by external trainers that focus on identifying harassment at work to handling grievances.

AWARE is one of the organisations that have been regularly conducting such workshops since it started them in July 2010. Lim says on the average, three trainings are provided for each company, depending on employee numbers.

Separate workshops can be conducted for managers and regular employees. Lim says the training can also be customised to harassment policies that a company already has in place, or AWARE gives recommendations on “what they should have, and train using those policies”.

In general, the courses are four to five hours and focus on what constitutes sexual harassment and what the liabilities for a company are, from both reputational and legal perspectives.

Workshops also teach employees how to be assertive, that it is okay to say “no” to a perpetrator, and in the case of harassment having occurred, how to collect evidence through recordings or even through journaling.

Another essential component of the programme is role playing, during which managers are given a chance to practice their interviewing skills in grievance handling procedures. This is an essential skill as Lim says that some victims are more upset by the interview process because they think that management doesn’t believe their claims. “I have had cases where the victim is more upset with management. This can also affect other employees. So, it is important that the interview of the issue is carried out very sensitively.”

Government bodies also emphasise the importance of grievance handling procedures as part of a company’s HR policy. A spokesperson for The Tripartite Alliance for Fair Employment Practices (TAFEP) states: “Employers, regardless of size, should have grievance handling procedures in place to deal with employee complaints including those of sexual harassment. Also, all complaints should be handled seriously with proper investigations carried out while confidentiality should be observed at all times.”

TAFEP also organises ‘Grievance Handling Workshops’ on a quarterly basis to help employers establish grievance handling mechanisms that are based on the principles of fair employment practices. Moreover, it released a Grievance Handling Handbook that offers practical tips and guides employers on a general grievance handling process.

Definition of sexual harassment in a workplace

“Unwelcome sexual advances or verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature which has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with the individual’s work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile, abusive or offensive working environment”

Source: ILO Thesaurus


Workplace harassment prevention policies in place in Asia

+       Malaysia: In 1999, a Code of Practice on the Prevention and Eradication of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace was introduced by the Ministry of Human Resources.

+       Thailand: The Prevention and Eradication of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace in 1999 provides guidelines to employers on forms of sexual harassments and grievances procedures.

+       Philippines: In 1995, the Philippines passed an Anti-Sexual Harassment Act, and its Civil Service

Commission adopted guidelines to promote zero-tolerance for workplace sexual harassment

+       India: In 1997, the Supreme Court established sexual harassment as a ”social problem of considerable magnitude” and a violation of the fundamental rights of women workers. It subsequently laid down guidelines “for the protection of these rights to fill the legislative vacuum”.

+       Hong Kong: In 1996, the Sex Discrimination Ordinance, which includes explicit provisions on sexual harassment in employment, came into force.


Tips for organisations to create a safe workplace

+       Have a clear definition of sexual harassment and have proper HR policies (for example, grievance procedures) regarding the do’s and the don’ts of workplace behavior

+       Ensure procedures are known to all employees and they know at least one person to approach

+       Provide training for managers and employees regarding sexual harassment

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