COMMENT: A clear line between jokes and sexual harassment must be drawn

Netizens have made demeaning remarks about a former Channel NewsAsia producer for calling out her colleague for his sexist remarks. (Photo: Getty Images)

By Nabilah Husna

When Channel NewsAsia producer Juwon Park published the sexist and degrading comments made to her by a co-worker on her Facebook page recently, many online commenters responded with demeaning remarks, blaming Park for not “taking a joke”. They made inappropriate comments about her appearance and women’s bodies, and belittled sexist experiences and sexual harassment commonly faced by women in the workplace.

We cannot dismiss Park’s experience as an isolated case. The victim-blaming we see online is very much in accord with what sexual harassment survivors commonly face offline. Such judgmental comments are fuelled by a larger society that still takes workplace sexual harassment lightly.

By far, employers can play the biggest role, by addressing workplace harassment fairly when it happens, but also creating spaces where workers understand the seriousness of such abuse and are well-equipped to support survivors.

In 2016, the largest category (27 per cent) of calls received by the Sexual Assault Care Centre (SACC) – AWARE’s specialist service for those who face sexual assault or harassment – were by clients whose experiences happened in the workplace or were work-related.

Survivors often hear discouraging responses when they speak up about these incidents. Co-workers and HR managers tell them to just deal with it and adjust to the “company culture”, family members tell them to stick it out for the sake of their careers, and friends count them lucky because they can imagine “worse” harassment.

The notion that only physical harassment justifies a formal or public complaint harms many. Sexual harassment extends beyond inappropriate touching and overt sexual advances.

There can likewise be an exclusionary effect – a strong message that the workplace is not somewhere women should feel welcome – when, for instance, a colleague shares topless photos with the department “just for laughs”. Or when a boss asks a new staff member about her sexual history to “get to know” her. Or, in Park’s case, where a colleague makes degrading comments about her body, appearance and abilities, then casually passes them off as a joke.

In all its forms, sexual harassment creates unsafe work environments and puts survivors in vulnerable positions where their mental and physical health, job security and livelihoods are endangered.

Our laws recognise this too. Since 2014, the Protection from Harassment Act (POHA) has prohibited acts related to sexual harassment, such as stalking and sending lewd messages.

In 2015, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), Singapore National Employers Federation (SNEF) and Tripartite Alliance for Fair & Progressive Employment Practices (TAFEP) issued the Tripartite Advisory on Managing Workplace Harassment, advising employers to develop a harassment prevention policy, provide staff with information and training on workplace harassment, and implement appropriate reporting and response procedures.

Yet the continuing prevalence of workplace harassment – as indicated by the numerous negative experiences of SACC’s clients with employers – suggests that a best practice advisory is not enough to tackle the problem. Singapore should go further and, like other business centres such as London and Hong Kong, make it mandatory for employers to have explicit sexual harassment policies, processes and training.

Employers may presently be unfamiliar with such policies and thus reluctant to implement them, but they need to understand that tackling harassment decisively will improve staff morale and productivity, and reduce turnover. In the absence of any clear policy, some workers facing harassment have silently left their jobs in the belief that their employers would not take their experiences seriously.

Employers who are seeking to understand and implement the Advisory’s recommendations can attend anti-harassment workshops, such as the one run by AWARE through Catalyse Consulting.

“Disciplinary action” by employers against perpetrators should not be arbitrary or ad hoc, but should be built into a strong company anti-harassment policy that is comprehensive and formalised. At the very least, policies need clear definitions and illustrations of harassing behaviour, standard and transparent procedures for investigation and appeal, professional counselling for survivors, and corrective actions.

If implemented, these practices would greatly improve the environment of Singapore’s workplaces and safety of all workers. Everyone has the right to a safe and respectful workplace. While we cannot remove all misconceptions about sexual harassment overnight, employers can and should be among the first to take the lead.

If you need help, or feel unsure about a sexual encounter, please call Sexual Assault Care Centre at 6779 0282 (Mon-Fri, 10am-midnight). To learn more about Catalyse Consulting’s training on workplace harassment, visit www.catalyse.sg or contact info@catalyse.sg.

Nabilah Husna is the Communications Senior Executive of AWARE (Association of Women for Action and Research). The views expressed here are her own.

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