Managing sexual harassment at work

Goh Seow Hui, partner, Bird & Bird ATMD, outlines the fundamentals that HR must stick to when it comes to sexual harassment in the workplace

Managing sexual harassment at work

Goh Seow Hui, partner, Bird & Bird ATMD, outlines the fundamentals that HR must stick to when it comes to sexual harassment in the workplace

  • The #MeToo movement has been gaining ground globally. What steps should HR take if an employee is accused of sexual harassment?

It is imperative to first conduct a fair investigation on a confidential basis. Such allegations are highly sensitive and could be highly damaging to both the complainant and respondent if the process is not properly managed.

In cases where the company finds that sexual harassment has occurred, they may consider a range of disciplinary action against the respondent – for example, suspension from work, verbal/written warnings and, in serious cases, summary dismissal.

The complainant may also rely on the provisions of the Protection from Harassment Act to seek various personal remedies – for example, damages or a protection order. In appropriate cases, the complainant may also fi le a police report against the respondent if the actions amount to punishable offences under the Penal Code, such as outrage of modesty.

  • An employee accuses another employee of sexual harassment via social media. How should HR handle the situation? Would HR be obliged to investigate the case?

HR’s response should depend on the nature of the social media post, its contents and a host of other factors – for example, whether the post violates the company’s social media policies.

Generally, HR is only required to investigate complaints submitted through the proper channels as prescribed in the company’s HR policies. However, if the post explicitly identifi es the company and the respondent, and the allegation is su ciently serious to have an adverse impact on the company’s reputation, the issue should not be ignored.

As a preliminary step, HR should ask the complainant to either withdraw or ‘privatise’ the post, pending the company’s investigations.

  • It has been found that many organisations in Singapore still lack a formal workplace sexual harassment policy. How can HR raise awareness of the issue and define what constitutes harassment in the workplace?

Sexual harassment may still be widely considered a taboo subject. It may also be paradoxical in some sense; victims stay silent because they do not know how to go about raising the issue due to the lack of workplace sexual harassment policies.

As a result, it is possible that organisations may not even perceive or think of sexual harassment as a serious enough issue to warrant the introduction of formal workplace policies!

The first step in raising awareness is to train employees on the standards of acceptable workplace behaviour and conduct. The Tripartite Advisory on Managing Workplace Harassment is a good starting point. It is an important fi rst step for HR to be able to start openly discussing the topic.

Goh Seow Hui

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