January 2nd, 2014

Employers must play their part

By Jolene Tan

By adopting and enforcing codes of conduct, backed up with formal processes for handling complaints, employers can set the right tone for inclusive working environments.

WSH_nhuThe case of cyber-stalker Colin Mak Yew Loong shows the need for better legal protection against harassment (“Singaporean jailed for stalking US singer online”; last Saturday).

Many sexual harassment cases have a significant negative impact on the victims. The constant threat of harassment can prevent them from carrying out their everyday activities.

Workplace sexual harassment is particularly problematic because the victims find it hard to avoid their harassers, who may be their supervisors.

With their livelihoods and careers at stake, the victims often feel powerless, and both their personal well-being and productivity suffer as a result.

Our 2008 survey of 500 respondents found that more than half had experienced workplace sexual harassment. Females made up 79 per cent of the victims, and 11 per cent had received career threats such as termination of employment or withholding of promotions.

Workplace sexual harassment creates a hostile environment that prevents women from participating in the workforce on an equal footing.

While criminal liability may be appropriate for severe cases, the most effective and equitable solution is usually for employers to take a proactive zero-tolerance stance against sexual harassment.

By adopting and enforcing codes of conduct, backed up with formal processes for handling complaints, employers can set the right tone for inclusive working environments.

Most victims do not seek punitive measures. Their primary aim is to continue working in a harassment-free environment.

Employer-facilitated mediation and enforcement of standards of conduct can achieve this much more efficiently than any court or police process.

However, most employers will not institute anti-harassment policies unless these are mandated under the law. Two-thirds of respondents to our 2008 survey were not aware of any such policies in their workplaces.

Many leading global business centres, including Hong Kong, have laws that specifically address workplace sexual harassment.

We hope the Government, in moving to strengthen anti-harassment laws, will require employers to play their part in ensuring safe and inclusive working environments for all.

Jolene Tan is the Programmes and Communications Senior Manager at AWARE. This letter was first published in The Straits Times Forum on 25 December 2013. Read the published version here

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