According to Speak Up At Work – a movement that pushes for safe workplaces free from harassment – around 60 per cent of people in Malaysia across industries have experienced sexual harassment at the office.
Following from this staggering statistic is the revelation that, of those who took part in the poll, only 12 per cent felt confident enough to report their case to HR, while 44 per cent felt it was easier to remain silent.
While this is a miserable realisation, it is, sadly, unsurprising. Where attitudes still exist in 2019 that would be better left to the distant past, women who are abused are dismissed with glib remarks such as “men will be men” or, worse, questioned about their role in ‘provoking’ their abuser, as though they are responsible for the inappropriate actions of another.
On the other hand, men who are abused have their complaints waved away with similar nonchalance. In the minds of too many, men cannot be abused by women. This is because it either shows a weakness men shouldn’t possess, or because they “enjoy the attention” – never mind that it’s unwanted.
It should also be noted that sexual harassment can occur between two people of the same sex, and should be treated with the same consideration and seriousness afforded to any other case.
Creating a safe environment for all
In Malaysia, there have been recent prominent cases of sexual harassment allegations in the workplace, where companies have been quick off the PR-mark to issue damning statements and take action against alleged abusers found to be guilty as charged.
But leaders must do more. It’s simply not enough to make the right noises and pluck out the few bad apples who cross a very clear line. The reality is that sexual harassment thrives where workplace cultures are reactive only, rather than proactive in ensuring that every worker – regardless of sex or gender – feels safe and respected in their place of work.
Of course, there is some pushback to be expected from those who invariably ask questions such as, “Am I not even allowed to talk to my colleagues, now?” and “What harm am I doing? I was only being playful!”
These kinds of questions are asked by those who expect to have power over others, and it’s this sort of attitude that has millions of people throughout the world dreading going to work each day. Especially if abuse is doled out by a boss or senior manager, victims of abuse will feel even less confident in speaking up.
So, what can business leaders do to make sure people feel safe in their workplace? What kinds of measures can be put in place to send a strong message to those people who think that they, in making their colleagues’ lives miserable, are just “being playful”?
Before we look at a few suggestions, it’s worth mentioning that business leaders have a responsibility to reflect on the message that their company culture sends out – and how accessible it is for people within their organisation to report any concerns safely and in confidence.
1. The law might fall short…but your company policy shouldn’t
In an interview with The Star in December 2018, Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) advocacy director, Yu Ren Chung, called on the Malaysian government to provide stronger protections against sexual harassment, and greater access to justice for victims.
While some progress is being made to establish clear legislation, there is still work to be done. That said, business leaders needn’t wait to implement in-house policies that protect all employees against sexual harassment
– they can start issuing clear guidelines and expectations of actions to be taken in the event of alleged abuse.
2. Be clear on what can be counted as sexual harassment
According to the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the following can be described as sexual harassment: offensive jokes, slurs, name-calling, intimidation, ridicule, insults, offensive objects or pictures, interference with work performance, physical assaults or threats, unwelcome sexual advances, and requests for sexual favours.
While some might find this to be a list open to interpretation (e.g. what constitutes an offensive joke?), a good rule of thumb to follow in the workplace is: Before telling that joke or thinking of behaving in a certain way, ask yourself, “Would I do this to someone I greatly admire and respect?” If the answer is “No”, then there’s a very good chance it’s not appropriate.
3. Create confidential channels for employees
Reporting sexual harassment takes courage. Not only is a person violated, but they will likely worry about the implications to them should they report abuse.
HR leaders need to provide confidential channels for people to feel comfortable reporting incidents of harassment, and ensure that employees who do report such incidents know that they will be treated fairly and with respect.
4. Include your sexual harassment policy as part of your on-boarding process
While HR leaders have sometimes been guilty of treating sexual harassment cases as reactive tick-box exercises, proactive measures to highlight the seriousness with which organisations take employee safety are crucial.
They will help to reassure new hires that they can come to work knowing they are protected, while reducing (hopefully eliminating altogether) any thoughts employees or managers have of “being playful”.
5. Investigate any reports of harassment swiftly – confidence is key
While incidents are thankfully few, there are cases of false allegations having been made against people. While those who report harassment should be treated with the utmost care and respect, it’s vital to remember that impartiality is maintained throughout a thorough investigation, and proper procedures set in place to protect both the reporter and the accused until a satisfactory conclusion has been reached.