Firms have authority, duty to address workplace harassment

Mr Francis Cheng argues that in the face of workplace harassment, it is "best for employees to develop inner strength and resist approaching their bosses if they can help it" ("Complex matter for employers to tackle workplace harassment"; Forum Online, Dec 28, 2015).

This approach fails to consider the full range of workplace harassment that may occur.

For example, if a boss demands sexual favours from a subordinate and threatens to fire her if she does not comply, this is a clear abuse of power which cannot - and should not - be resolved by the subordinate "developing inner strength". Proper channels need to be established to prevent such situations from arising and to ensure proper redress if they do.

Furthermore, what Mr Cheng refers to as "having a bit of a laugh or indiscretion at work" can nevertheless be classified as workplace harassment.

What is a laugh for the perpetrator may not be so amusing for the recipient. Unlike mere playground squabbles, workplace harassment may happen with the intention of degrading, humiliating and embarrassing a worker or undermining his performance.

Workplace harassment is a form of abuse because it is often about the relative power one has over the vulnerable individual, regardless of age, sex, religion or class.

I agree that it is arguably not the responsibility of the company to handle "a romance that turns sour".

However, Mr Cheng's comment about either party using that relationship "as a pretext to lodge a harassment complaint" only works to trivialise the reality of workplace harassment, despite the fact that a local study by the Association of Women for Action and Research in 2008 reported that about 54 per cent of respondents indicated they had experienced workplace sexual harassment.

The persistence of unwanted sexual attention in a professional environment can be very harmful to workers. It should not be simplistically conflated with conflicts in a mutually desired relationship.

Moreover, given that employees necessarily submit to the companies' authority if they want to remain employed there, companies are not only in a better position to manage workplace harassment, but they also have the responsibility to do so.

Alison Kuah (Ms)