Tackling sexual harassment at the workplace

HR experts and lawyers in Singapore say that sexual harassment at the workplace is not uncommon, but they are unsure of the extent of its prevalence. PHOTO: THE NEW PAPER FILE

SINGAPORE - Samantha, 28, was speechless with shock when her senior manager placed his hand on her buttocks one night when she was working late.

She later found out he had cornered another woman colleague to try and kiss her. He had also touched another colleague's breasts, among other harassing acts.

After realising the extent of his predatory ways, the women in the technology start-up banded together to complain to their boss.

Said Samantha (not her real name), now an events executive in another company: "We were afraid our boss would dismiss the matter, as he is the boss's pet. But the boss investigated and fired him. I was so relieved but also afraid he would take revenge on us."

Across America and Britain, a series of powerful men, especially in entertainment, media and politics, are falling from grace after being accused of sexual misconduct in the past month.

About 100 women, including megastar actresses Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie, have spoken out against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein's predatory behaviour.

Actor Kevin Spacey was dropped from the popular Netflix drama House of Cards on Nov 3 after he had allegedly made sexual advances towards actor Anthony Rapp decades ago when Rapp was aged 14 and accused subsequently of sexual misconduct by more than a dozen men.

In Britain, about a dozen politicians have been accused of sexual harassment in recent weeks, including Defence Secretary Michael Fallon who has since resigned.

Such harassment at work, however, is not just confined to the West.

Human resources (HR) experts and lawyers in Singapore say it is not uncommon here but they do not know the extent of its prevalence.

But there are some indicators.

A survey in 2008 by the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware) found slightly over half of the 500 people polled had experienced some form of sexual harassment at work.

This ranged from receiving sexually explicit messages or content to being touched inappropriately and at its worst, rape.

In the first six months of this year, Aware, which runs a centre that helps people who were sexually assaulted, received 35 calls on workplace sexual harassment. Last year, it received 74 such calls for the whole year and the year before, 56.

Another indicator is the applications for protection orders under the Protection from Harassment Act (Poha). Last year, there were 96, which is a notable drop from 159 in 2015.

The State Courts, however, does not distill the figures to set apart cases involving sexual harassment at the workplace.

A group of entrepreneurs in the technology industry in Singapore is stepping up to fill the data gap and plans to start an online platform for people to share their experiences of harassment without compromising their safety while finding support from others. They hope it will also provide, among other things, data on how widespread the problem is.

Mr Florian Cornu, one of the people behind the project, says the group is still working out the details but hopes the website can go live by the end of this year.

He said: "This is a problem that will not go away in six months. We want to bring about more transparency on this and educate people that harassment is unacceptable and is not okay."

  • What you can do

  • Singapore Human Resources Institute president Erman Tan encourages those who have been sexually harassed to report the harassment to their human resources department.

    He said: "Our stand is to encourage people to speak out, not only for themselves but also for their colleagues. But the decision is up to the individual, given all the considerations they have to deal with."

    HR experts say people should go to the police if a crime, like molest, has been committed against them.

    Those looking for counselling and support can contact Aware's Sexual Assault Care Centre helpline at 6779-0282 (weekdays from 10 am to midnight) or its website at www.sacc.sg

While men preying on women subordinates form the bulk of the culprits, experts interviewed by The Straits Times say a quiet minority are men hit on by other men or women. Often, the aggressor is the boss but inappropriate behaviour by a client or colleague is not uncommon.

Lawyer S. Suressh of Eversheds Harry Elias recounts a hotel's senior executive who would summon his staff to his room and greet them in a bathrobe.

He did this to several women and they complained. He was sacked.

In the past year, one high profile case of workplace sexual harassment involved former chief executive Edmund Kwok of the National Kidney Foundation.

He was sacked over a personal indiscretion involving a male employee last November. The charity has made a police report on the matter and investigations are ongoing, said a police spokesman.

Another recent case involved lawyer Ismail Atan, who was disbarred by the Law Society in July for molesting his female assistant.

HR experts say that in the past few years, there has been a greater acknowledgement of the problem and generally, HR departments are more ready to take action when they receive such a complaint.

In 2015, the Manpower Ministry, the National Trades Union Congress and the Singapore National Employers Federation issued an advisory to companies to advocate for zero tolerance for harassment.

The three organisations suggest measures they could adopt, such as a hotline for victims and better training for HR staff to deal with such cases.

On Nov 6, Nominated Member of Parliament Kok Heng Leun asked Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say how many firms have implemented the ideas in the advisory.

Mr Lim said the advisory is meant as a guide, is not prescriptive and the authorities do not track how many companies have adopted its recommendations.

Singapore Human Resources Institute president Erman Tan said: "In the past, people may sweep it under the carpet as it is a touchy topic and the HR may not be trained to handle such complaints. But increasingly, companies are realising that avoiding it will not solve the problem."

HR consultant Arthur Khong said he believes many firms still do not have a workplace harassment policy, despite the tripartite advisory.

The lack of such policies deters staff from reporting the harassment to their HR division, an Aware spokesman said, because they feel their complaints may not be taken seriously.

They also fear losing their jobs or other repercussions. So many choose to keep mum and quit instead, said those interviewed.

But the #metoo movement, with Hollywood actress Alyssa Milano urging victims of sexual harassment to tweet "me too" to show the magnitude of the problem, may have broken the veil of silence surrounding the problem.

As women in more countries share their experiences on social media, psychiatrist Munidasa Winslow noted that women speaking up has had a domino effect in empowering others to do the same.

He said: "In the past, they may think even if I speak up, nothing will happen. But now, speaking up could lead to some action being taken. Men will think twice as now, chances are someone may bring up their misdeeds and destroy their respectable life."

Join ST's WhatsApp Channel and get the latest news and must-reads.