What is workplace harassment?
In recent years, several Singapore-based companies have been accused of having intolerant work environments that condone unpleasant or abusive conduct that included racial discrimination, sexual harassment, use of profanities on employees, or normalising overtime work. Workplace harassment can consist of the use of threats, abusive or insulting language, cyberbullying, sexual harassment or stalking of employees. It can also take place within and outside the office, such as during business trips, at a client’s office, or online.
What may have been acceptable in the past could be deemed as an act of workplace harassment today, and the big question that could be posed is if we are even aware of what constitutes workplace harassment. Shifting cultural values may have also rendered some norms of the past unacceptable in today’s society, and discrimination against handicaps, sicknesses, race, religion or sexual orientation has been formally condemned by many countries and consequently, has inspired anti-workplace discrimination efforts worldwide. For instance, although complaints centred around sexual harassment in the workplace have increased by 15 percent in the past 20 years, Quick and McFadyen found that awareness on the topic and how to report such acts of harassment have led to the increase in complaints, as opposed to workplace harassment actually being on the rise.
However, if swept under the rug, work harassment could be treated like the norm amongst employees within an organisation. This could then give the green light to perpetrators to continue their abuse or for the practice to even be “adopted” by others, thus adversely affecting the organisation’s culture. Additionally, there are legal repercussions here in Singapore to turning a blind eye to the issue: as per the Protection from Harassment Act (POHA) which was enacted in 2014, employers have the legal responsibility of tackling workplace harassment. Currently, victims of workplace harassment in Singapore have the option of reporting the incident to their supervisors, HR personnel, or are able to file a report with TAFEP, which can assist and provide advice on the appropriate actions victims of workplace harassment can take. TAFEP will also require victims’ employers to implement policies and procedures that help avoid future incidents of workplace harassment.
Workplace harassment is commonplace within organisations and often underreported. Associate Professor Abhijeet Vadera at the Singapore Management University (SMU) highlights that culture plays a large part in employees’ inertia to report workplace harassment. In Asian cultures, showing respect to authority is the status quo. The mentality that "the boss is always right" deters workers who are harassed from raising the issue to management, leading many of them to turn to online platforms such as Glassdoor, Tellonym and Instagram to air their grievances. Such platforms offer a veil of anonymity, with no fear of reprisal or for them. A study conducted by Harvard Business Review found that a single sexual harassment claim is perceived as a cultural issue as opposed to a one-off situation, which greatly affects the way people view an organisation. Allegations of workplace harassment therefore have the potential of drastically altering public opinion on an organisation and evoking perceptions of structural unfairness.
Workplace harassment affects organisational culture
It is crucial for organisational leaders to provide a safe and positive working environment and address any workplace harassment allegations to ensure that their organisation’s reputation is upheld. Moreover, any direct or subtle acts of harassment not called out and left unchecked send the message to both the perpetrators and victims that workplace harassment is acceptable within the organisation’s culture. Normalising workplace harassment has a trickle-down effect: not only are employees’ psychological safety threatened on a day-to-day basis, their poor mental health could also easily affect work productivity and quality, and could even permeate into their personal lives and relationships. An organisation’s greatest resource is its people, and fostering a comfortable and productive working environment should be among the top priorities.
Poor leadership can create a toxic organisational culture where leaders fail to address the injustice and abuse workers felt when such issues are brought to their attention. As a result, workplace harassment is more likely to take place. Employees pay close attention to the values that an organisation’s leaders advocate, and are concerned whether their leaders are able to 'walk the talk’. Thus, organisational leaders need to assume responsibility in creating a safe environment and be accountable for any abuse that could happen in or out of the workplace, during or after work hours. Employers must educate themselves on the effects of workplace harassment in order to communicate the severity of the issue to their employees and establish a system for transparency and accountability.
Inculcating the right ‘core values’
As organisational leaders have significant influence on the culture of an organisation, leaders should inculcate a set of shared values within their employees that will govern the way they interact with clients, co-workers and with each other, in or out of the workplace. In order to build a favourable and safe organisational culture, leaders can consider embracing the following core values highlighted by the Ministry of Manpower:
An individuals’ personal values and beliefs should be respected.
An organisation’s culture should be centred around its people, and because prioritising the well-being of employees is of great importance, it has to ensure that its employees feel safe at work.
Organisations should deal with workplace harassment cases with empathy and provide adequate support for victims.
In an increasingly diverse workplace, raising cultural awareness and respecting cultural sensitivities are essential to accommodate all employees of different backgrounds.
Tackling workplace harassment within an organisation
On top of establishing a culture with the right values, organisations should also consider the following recommendations to ensure a safer working environment for employees:
Developing a Harassment Prevention Policy
Developing and implementing an effective workplace policy is key in preventing harassment. Organisations should institute a harassment prevention policy that aligns to its values and communicate the policy clearly to the entire organisation. In addition, the adoption of a zero-tolerance stance will convey the organisation’s no-nonsense attitude to workplace harassment, thus ensuring the protection of their employees.
Providing Training and Information on Workplace Harassment
Organisations should consider providing information and training on workplace harassment so that employees are able to identify and evaluate such acts, and be encouraged to report those who disregard the legitimate sensitivities of their employees. Training should also cover how employees are able to promote a safe and harmonious workplace through individual and collective efforts.
Workplace Harassment Reporting and Response Procedures
Organisations should also create channels for employees to file reports. This could include anonymous platforms, assigning a human resource team to look into the issue, or getting a qualified neutral investigator on board. By providing means to safely report harassment or abuse, management shows employees that they are committed to tackling the problem.
Instead of solely centring discussions on topics such as working hours and benefits, employers should also ensure that they take specific steps to ensure employees are aware of existing workplace harassment policies and procedures that protect them from all types of harassment at the workplace. According to the Protection from Harassment Act (POHA), employers have the legal obligation to protect and compensate victims of workplace harassment, and failure to do so could be considered a criminal offence. Victims are able to claim against their employer for the employer’s own misconduct, or for the misconduct of its employee.
At aAdvantage, we work with our clients in their culture transformation journey by analysing both their current processes in place and the behaviours of the people, identifying what needs to be changed, and providing the change through training. For organisations to reduce the likelihood of workplace harassment, management must be equipped with the knowledge of measures that are appropriate to handle workplace harassment cases. Employers need to hold themselves, as well as the perpetrators, accountable to build a healthy and cooperative work culture for the success of the organisation and well-being of their employees.
Get in touch with our certified and experienced culture consultants and facilitators today at email@example.com
Jacqueline Gwee, Director and Founder, aAdvantage Consulting Group Pte Ltd
Jacqueline is Director and Founder of aAdvantage Consulting. She has over 25 years of broad-based human resource, change management and business excellence consulting experience in both the public and private sectors. Prior to founding aAdvantage Consulting, Jacqueline was with the consulting practices of Big 4 consulting firms focussing on organisational development and change management. Jacqueline has advised companies on best practices in organisational development and how human capital strategies align to support business success. Jacqueline currently leads the Research & Insights, Human Capital & Culture Transformation Solutions within aAdvantage Consulting.