AUGUST 7 — Of recent, the number of reported cases on workplace sexual harassment has been alarming. In many organisations, employees are sexually harassed and oppressed by their employers or higher-ranked employees. This issue has to be addressed and curbed to reduce the psychological effect on the victims, give prospective employees a sense of sexual security, foster a good working environment and enhance the organisation’s productivity.
Sexual harassment: What it entails
Sexual harassment in the workplace is a form of discrimination that includes any uninvited comments, conduct, behaviour regarding sex, gender, or sexual orientation. It consists of a range of actions from mild transgressions to sexual abuse or assault.
Sexual assault may include:
1. Quid Pro Quo — This is when submission to a sexual act or sexual advances is considered a condition for either getting a job, a promotion, or any other benefit that one would generally be entitled to, and should be merit-based.
2. Offensive Working Environment — This arises from the receipt of unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favours, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature.
It includes, but is not limited to, such cases as:
• Lewd comments about appearance, body or clothes
• Indecent remarks
• Inappropriate questions or comments about your sex life
• Looking or staring at a person’s body
• Display of sexually explicit material in shared workspaces, and
• Sending and sharing sexually explicit content via email
3. Physical Abuse — This is when there is direct physical contact including any unwarranted touching, indecent brushing of bodies, uninvited hugging, caressing, kissing, and rape.
It is a fact that both men and women suffer workplace sexual assault with the predator mostly being a man.
The UN reports that 40-50 per cent of women in EU countries and 30-40 per cent of women in Asia-Pacific countries experience some form of sexual harassment in the workplace. Harassment starts when the predator begins to lack a sense of responsibility in his work ethics, and this is discriminatory and illegal irrespective of frequency or severity, creating a hostile or offensive work environment (such as the victim’s demotion, firing or quitting).
About 60 per cent of the workplace sexual harassment cases that get reported were perpetrated by persons in higher positions (senior management). Similarly in the most recent cases of the Texas Instrument’s Crutcher, INTEL’s Krazinach, and the BFM 89.9 (Malaysia) sexual assault cases.
However, as opposed to the predators’ resignation in some of the cases named above, conditions such as the victim’s demotion or firing were used to keep them quiet.
This claim makes it evident that power abuse in the workplace is a significant issue that is being used to successfully carry out sexual harassment, by extension, this also stems from their losing the sense of responsibility to their job and/or work ethics.
How seriously should workplace sexual harassment be treated?
Workplace sexual harassment shouldn’t be taken or handled lightly. That is not just because it is legally wrong, but majorly because of the effect, it has on the victims and the organisation’s productivity.
A good number of sexual harassment cases surface regularly, and a large percentage of the cases reported within the organisation get swept under the carpet. Again, this is evident from the BFM 89.9 Malaysian radio case which had a lid on it until an anonymous email exposed this act to various news agencies.
Once a hostile working environment is created, it is vital that the victim reports the harassment to the Human Resources Department. In addition to that, they should, as well, take detailed notes of the dates, times, and nature of the incidents.
If attempts to remediate the situation fail, the victim should file a harassment claim with a law enforcing agency.
The employer’s legal liability or responsibility?
A person who sexually harasses another is primarily responsible for the harassment, but employers can also be held accountable for the actions of their employees – which, often, is the case.
Most lawsuits of sexual harassment, especially when it involves senior management staff, have seen the employer prosecuted alongside the employee. Therefore, the employer has the responsibility of protecting their employees and fostering a non-hostile working environment.
In protecting the employees, employers can come up with a sexual harassment policy and a grievance lodgement process and counter. This could involve the setup of a team (members of the Human resource personnel) who would be responsible for investigating the issues, protecting the victim, and effecting disciplinary actions for every harassment case.
The employer can put up signages of the code of conducts, work ethics and sexual harassment policy, at strategic locations (staff canteen, main entrance, meeting rooms) in the company, send weekly reminders to employees via their emails and organise seminars for them.
By so doing, the employees become conversant with what is expected of them, and the consequence of their actions if they derail. With the following (in line with other measures deemed appropriate) put in place, an employer’s liability would be reduced in the advent of a sexual harassment case.
What steps to take when such a case has happened?
In the advent of a sexual harassment issue, the victim should inform trusted colleagues, friends and resort to confrontation; have a matured conversation with the villain to sort out the problem. If the villain doesn’t halt the harassment, the victim is advised to report directly to the Human Resource department or Grievance Counter.
There, they should lodge a sexual harassment complaint or grievance and wait for the due process of inquiry with the respective outcomes, remedy and corrective action plans on the matter.
Should the human resource team not help in resolving the issue and the harassment lingers on, the victim should seek legal advice and report to law enforcement authorities within their locality.
From an employer’s standpoint, critical investigation into the issue should be embarked on immediately as the matter is reported.
The Human Resource team on sexual harassment is advised to be unbiased and act in the interest of the organisation, especially where senior management staff is involved. At the end of the investigation, disciplinary measures should be taken on the predator while the prey is given assurances of required safety and counselling.
The future of workplace sexual harassment
Without adequate measures in place to curb the level of sexual harassment, this unspoken nuisance may grow exponentially and become engrained into the workplace environment. That is mainly in part to the factors surrounding the workplace such as age range of the workers, the predominant profession, working hours, level of familiarity, level of authority of senior management staffs, poor job description, etc.
Hence, the onus lies on the employers to make sure the workplace is safe and doesn’t, in any way, promote sexual harassment or lack of professionalism in the workplace. The can be achieved with appropriate and necessary education programs on harassment and power abuse plus visualised warning materials on such gross misconduct with the openness of allowing persons to speak up – especially from members of the senior management staff.
* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.
* Associate Professor Dr Roy Prasad is the Dean of the School of Business Accounting and Management at Genovasi University College.