Workplace harassment: Building a safe and respectful workplace

Workplace harassment: Building a safe and respectful workplace

“The impact of harassment is a violation of human dignity” said Roslina Chai, MD, Catalyse Consulting setting the stage for an afternoon of intense discussions and debate on workplace harassment at the Employers Connect event hosted by Workforce Singapore. Joining her to speak on this platform were Jonathan Yuen, Head, Employment & Benefits and Legal Basix at Rajah and Tann, Choo Phaik Ai, Senior Consultant, Catalyse Consulting and Lye Sam Tho, Head, People Services, Grab.

Moderating and speaking at the event, Roslina unpacked the concept of harassment, contextualizing aspects of behavior that qualified as harassment at the workplace. The majority of incidences of harassment at the workplace are non-sexual or bullying, she noted. As nuanced and intangible as harassment often is, it is for the most part, hard to prove.

Organizations that do not establish clear policies and processes to handle harassment at the workplace are, therefore, wholly unprepared to deal with the pace with which everything devolves when an accusation surfaces.

What can you do as an employer? Roslina recommends a four-step program:

  • Define: Set in place unambiguous policies and time bound processes
  • Train: Equip all employees from first responders to investigators and leadership on how to respond and act to reported incidences at the workplace. Communicate through all channels frequently to make employees aware
  • Culture: Bring about a culture of respect, safety, honesty and one in which there is no fear of retaliation
  • Fairness: Take action as appropriate to the offence. Ensure an atmosphere of transparency

One of the most emotionally impactful sections of the event was speaker Choo Phaik Ai’s recounting of being a target of harassment. A senior consultant with Catalyse Consulting, Phaik Ai spoke with admirable candour of her distressful experiences and of the vulnerability of being without recourse to redress.

Jonathan Yuen, drawing on his extensive experience in the field, walked the audience through the legal environment around workplace harassment. Clarifying the ramifications of the Prevention of Harassment Act, he pointed out that organizations bear a significant responsibility to ensure a safe and harassment free workplace. “Especially so”, he noted, “since Singapore abstained from voting for the ILO Violence And Harassment Convention 2019, an international labour standard that will be legally binding for countries that choose to ratify it. This means that the burden of preventing and managing workplace harassment has shifted to the employers.”

Jonathan also stressed that common mistakes companies make such as inadequate reporting and disciplinary processes and incompetent investigations, could render them open to legal action. What’s more, not having a clear-cut policy and transparent processes could also drive disgruntled employees to air their grievances in public and damage the organization’s reputation.

He spoke of the need for and importance of comprehensible and accessible policies, training of employees and the implementation of reporting and response procedures. “It’s not enough to just set these up. Companies need to walk the talk and make sure there is a climate and culture that demonstrates their commitment to following through. Training is most important”, he reiterated, “to ensure that every one of your employees is aware of the company’s policies and know what channels they can use should the need arise.”

Roslina Chai from Catalyse Consulting and Lye Sam Tho, Head of People Services at Grab speak of Grab’s commitment to building a safe and respectful workplace

So how does a company get it right? Grab, the Singapore based technology company that facilitates ride hailing transport services, food delivery and payment services is in the process of implementing a comprehensive program to make its workplace a safe and harassment free zone for its employees and customers. Lye Sam Tho, who heads People Services at Grab spoke to the audience of the company’s proactive approach. “Safety is paramount for our passengers and our employees. We also felt that with a rapidly expanding employee base, we needed to ensure that everyone understood and absorbed our cultural values.” Grab has partnered with Catalyse Consulting to create policies and processes that set the tone for a harassment free workplace. On-site training for key stakeholders and digital training for every employee is underway.

WSG’s Employers Connect events are a part of its ongoing efforts to transform the local workforce and industry to meet ongoing economic challenges. WSG speaker Sreeganesh Satgunanathan informed the audience about the various Adapt and Grow schemes offered.

Panelists Choo Phaik ai, Jonathan Yuen, Lye Sam Tho and Roslina Chai address questions from the audience

The event closed with the speakers addressing concerns raised by the audience on managing workplace harassment. As they deliberated on the questions, common themes emerged on the parameters to be utilized to identify and classify certain behaviours as bullying and harassment and the impact of establishing such processes on the workplace ethos. Could observers or witnesses raise complaints legally or within the company? Would setting guidelines on what was acceptable and what wasn’t in the workplace negatively impact the spirit of camaraderie within the office as everyone watched what they said?

These and a number of other questions served to emphasize how critical and timely the topic of workplace harassment is and how there needs to be wider dialogue around it. We commend WSG’s proactive efforts to promote awareness around what is often ignored as an uncomfortable and unacknowledged aspect of worklife.