Why Organisations Should Take Workplace Harassment Seriously

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 [1]. 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 [2].

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 [3]. 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 [4].

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 [5]. 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 [6]. 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 [7].

Workplace harassment is commonplace within organisations and often underreported [8]. Associate Professor Abhijeet Vadera at the Singapore Management University (SMU) highlights that culture plays a large part in employees’ inertia to report workplace harassment [9]. In Asian cultures, showing respect to authority is the status quo [10]. 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 [11]. 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 [12].

Workplace harassment affects organisational culture