Should companies rethink their workplace harassment policies with a shift to hybrid or WFH arrangements?

In this climate of uncertainty, one thing we can be sure about is that the Covid-19 pandemic has revolutionised the way we work. Just 3 years ago, we probably could never have imagined going months without seeing our colleagues in person. Whether that’s a good thing, we probably know our own answers.

Work-from-home (WFH) arrangements may be a temporary shelter away from unsavoury workplace behaviours, but the heightened digital connection during this time means that employees can still very well be susceptible to sexual harassment. While more often than not associated to verbal and physical harassment, we wanted to find out whether the frequency and nature of workplace sexual harassment has changed with remote working as the default arrangement in many countries.

“We surveyed n=1,000 respondents per country, across Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines (n=4,000 total), to find out their experiences, and whether people know how to deal with such incidents.

A look at workplace sexual harassment in SEA

Our survey found that at least three-quarters of respondents in MY, TH and PH had encountered workplace sexual harassment in the past 5 years, with the exception of SG (about half indicating that they had similar experiences). These incidents of sexual harassment took on different forms, with jokes of a sexual nature being the most common in all countries. This may not be surprising, considering that many of us can probably recall how such ‘jokes’ were commonly shared in school during our adolescence. Uncorrected behaviour as such, may be brought into adulthood, which can distort conceptions of what constitutes sexual harassment, and even feed into prejudiced attitudes towards particular gender groups.

Has anything changed since Covid-19 and WFH?

We received mixed responses when respondents were asked to reflect whether incidents of sexual harassment have become more or less common with WFH arrangements. Results from Singapore (17%) and Thailand (20%) show a decrease in incidents of offline sexual harassment. Meanwhile in the Philippines, 28% indicated an increase in online harassment and 25%, offline

However, it is important to note that this numerical difference gives us a bird’s eye view and not lived experiences. It’s notable that a significant share of respondents indicated “prefer not to say” – This might suggest either sensitivity over reporting on these types of issues or even a lack of awareness and understanding of what constitutes sexual harassment.

We reached out to Mr Adrian Tan, Partner at TMSP Law Corporation, to provide his perspective on what constitutes as sexual harassment at the workplace.

 ‘‘Workplace harassment can fall into two broad categories: physical and verbal. Physical harassment covers unwanted contact between the harasser and the victim. It’s a crime in Singapore for someone to touch another person in a way that is intended to outrage the modesty of that person. If WFH arrangements become more common, I would imagine that the opportunities for physical harassment would be reduced. Verbal harassment is harder to define. It involves the use of words (perhaps jokes, or discriminatory comments) that demean or insult a victim. Sometimes, pictures or videos can be involved. For example, a harasser might send a pornographic video to a victim, as a “joke”. Even if employees are engaged in WFH arrangements, there may still be verbal harassment. This is where HR departments have to produce guidelines on appropriate behaviour. When on a zoom call, for example, is it recommended for staff to turn off their videos, or use virtual backgrounds, to preserve privacy? Some employees may feel that zoom video calls are too intrusive and may be uncomfortable with revealing too much of their surroundings or themselves to their colleagues and superiors. HR departments must also provide avenues for complaints of harassment, even anonymous complaints.’’

How do victims of sexual harassment at work deal with it?

The survey results show that victims most commonly turn to their friends to talk about their experiences of sexual harassment at work, with less seeking assistance from co-workers or the authorities. In Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines, more females than males turn to their co-workers. Meanwhile in Thailand, more males than their female counterparts would report to their managers or the HR department.

While some companies may have policies against workplace sexual harassment in place, it is evident here that incidents often go unreported, at least to the relevant authorities in the workplace. This points to a few possible problems:

  • Resources and company policies to tackle workplace sexual harassment are lacking, or not properly exercise
  • Lack of awareness and knowledge about company policies/resources
  • Lack of knowledge on what constitutes punishable behaviour
  • Disparities in actual versus perceived support for victims of sexual harassment
  • Lack of confidence in the management or company to take appropriate actions, including the protection of victims
  • Fundamental lack of support for victims, which is a wider societal problem that stretches beyond the organisation

Among those who did not report incidents of workplace sexual harassment, the most common reasons chosen were that the victims believed that no action would be taken, and that the lack of physical evidence would not work in their favour. In Malaysia and Singapore, there was a skew towards males who didn’t report the incident which may be due to the fear of being judged or ostracised by their colleagues. The concern that nothing will be done in response to incidents of sexual harassment may not be unfounded, as 25% in Singapore and almost one-third of Thai-based victims indicated that nothing happened after they reported such an incident. And it’s more common for females to report nothing being done than males.

While some may think, what’s so difficult about making a report? It is important to set things in context – in a culture where sexual harassment is predominantly taboo and victim-blaming still maintains a strong hold, victims can feel guilt, shame and disempowered. The new norm of flexible work arrangements has to address sexual harassment in both offline and online forms

At least 60% of respondents across all countries surveyed indicated that they feel safe enough to report a sexual harassment incident. When we sliced the results by those who had experienced incidents of sexual harassment versus those who had not, those who had were more likely to indicate they did not feel safe reporting such cases. Along gender lines, fewer females than males feel safe to do so in Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines.

Meanwhile, the majority of managers in Malaysia (73%), Thailand (81%) and Philippines (80%) think that they are well-equipped to tackle incidents when they’re reported to them, but in Singapore, only 55% feel the same. These results reinforce our points earlier that there is still much to be done when it comes to workplace policies against sexual harassment. The onslaught of the pandemic has also turned work arrangements upside down, requiring employers to rethink and revamp the way companies function. So why not take this chance to review sexual harassment policies too?

Putting in place preventive measures and building a strong support system

As mentioned earlier, the issue of sexual harassment goes beyond the workplace – it is a societal problem that reflects general attitudes towards groups of certain gender and sexual identity. It requires all stakeholders to do their parts to educate, prevent and lend support to victims. Rehabilitation and disciplinary actions may be the first measures we turn to, but they are band aid solutions that do not tackle the fundamental issues behind sexual harassment – lack of awareness, education and stigma, just to name a few.

With hybrid arrangements more or less set to be the new normal, the spotlight has always been on how employers have to recalibrate not just new ways of working. At the same time, companies ought to prepare for the new ways that problems present themselves, keeping employee well-being at its core.

We invited Ms Shailey Hingorani, head of Research and Advocacy at AWARE to share her perspectives on what can be done to prevent sexual harassment at the workplace.

“We know from the experiences at AWARE’s Sexual Assault Care Centre and Workplace Harassment and Discrimination Advisory, that victims of workplace sexual harassment face a wide range of barriers to speaking up. Many of them believe that their experiences were not ‘severe’ enough, especially if the harassment was not physical in nature; others worry that they lack sufficient evidence to prove the harassment, and yet others fear retaliation from the perpetrator or reputational damage that could follow them throughout their career. Ideally, national legislation on workplace harassment should impose an obligation on employers to prevent and/or manage harassment. This legislation should include a clear definition of what constitutes workplace sexual harassment, so as to address the widespread misunderstanding that we have observed around the issue.”



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