Harassment in small workplaces a problem: HR experts

Despite increased awareness of workplace sexual harassment, many companies here still do not have guidelines for such issues, according to human resource experts.

This is amid allegations of sexual harassment at work reported globally, including cases involving entertainment industry veterans.

"Companies with such guidelines are likely to be multinational companies with 'imported' policies," said Mr Ronald Lee, who is managing director of human resource consultancy PrimeStaff Management Services. "It is good to have a policy giving affected employees an avenue to turn to for help."

His sentiments were echoed by Ms Jolene Tan, who heads advocacy and research and women's rights group Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware).

While official recognition of such issues has grown in recent years, the way they are dealt with on the ground can be "arbitrary", she said.

"It depends entirely on whether your employer is enlightened enough to have put in place a procedure at all," Ms Tan added.

  • What victims can do

  • Human resource experts say that those who have been sexually harassed at work should report the issue to their HR department. If a crime - such as molestation - has occurred, they should go to the police.

    Those looking for support, legal information and counselling can contact Aware's Sexual Assault Care Centre.

    Telling a friend or co-worker, or self-documenting an account of the harassment after the fact, could be helpful for investigations should a victim choose to take legal action in the future, said the centre's manager Anisha Joseph.

    Victims can call the centre's helpline on 6779-0282 on weekdays from 10am to midnight. They can also visit its website at www.sacc.sg

"The administration of the procedure may also be very dependent on the specific individual you made the complaint to."

Smaller companies and start-ups often lack HR departments or staff equipped to handle such complaints, added Aware's Sexual Assault Care Centre manager Anisha Joseph.

"Some employers also make survivors sign non-disclosure agreements, prohibiting them from formally reporting the incident," she said.

But Ms Richa Sharma, who is manager at Page Personnel Singapore, said she has observed attempts by employers to deal with the issue in a more structured manner.

"New memos have been drafted, experts and coaches have been brought in to give talks in workplaces, and we do observe the topic being talked about more in the public," she said.

There are no official figures on the prevalence of workplace sexual harassment in Singapore but there are some indicators. Fewer than five of the 800 complaints lodged with the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices (Tafep) were about this issue, a Tafep spokesman said.

Meanwhile, one in four cases reported at Aware's Sexual Assault Care Centre over the last two years involved workplace harassment.

In total, it saw 338 cases last year and 267 cases the year before.

On whether there are grey areas as to what constitutes sexual harassment, Aware's Ms Tan said that in her experience, most cases are fairly clear-cut and involve non-consensual touching or some sort of threat.

"While there are obviously some arguments about interpretations of behaviour and communications, I don't think we should imagine that this ambiguity is present in most cases," she added.

•Additional reporting by Samantha Boh and Tiffany Fumiko Tay

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 10, 2017, with the headline 'Harassment in small workplaces a problem: HR experts'. Print Edition | Subscribe