LAST_UPDATESun, 22 Jul 2018 9am

Sexual Harassment At Work: Where Do You Draw The Line?

“After company meeting, I was asked to stay in the meeting room by my boss to have a further discussion on the work-related matters…Minutes before the discussion ended, he came close to me…He tried to pressure me for sex and asked me not to turn him down if I wanted my year-end bonus…” – Christina, 37 years old, Kuala Lumpur

“I’ve been shoved into dark rooms and molested, followed into my hotel room, harassed over the radio in front of everyone [with whom] I work with sexual suggestions humiliating me…being hit on even after saying no a million times to my boss...”  An American journalist

These are some of the first-hand account of sexual harassment stories experienced at workplace. Many of us may have heard similar stories in the workplace experienced by our fellow colleagues and friends.

According to report in a local Malay newspaper, it was highlighted that 10% of the women in Malaysia have suffered from sexual harassment in the form of threats; and another 10% experienced it in the form of verbal harassment.

Recently in the U.S, 13% of survey respondents said they had “been sexually harassed by a boss or another superior, and 19 % have been harassed by a co-worker other than a boss or superior, according to the Huffington Post in an article dated April 22, 2014.

Research conducted by the Australian Human Rights Commission found that people are often unclear of what constitute workplace sexual harassment, and if they do experience it or witness it, most don’t report it either because they don’t think it is serious enough or they are afraid of the repercussions.

The research also highlighted that in most cases, the victims realize that something is ‘not right’ but do not immediately realize the implications, with many not even recognizing that they are being harassed and most are at a loss on how to deal with it.

When do casual jokes, office humour and pranks and team camaraderie that result from the familiarity of people spending 8 hours or more a day working together cross the line to inappropriate sexual intimidation and harassment?

What do you know about sexual harassment?

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In Malaysia, changes were finally made to the Employment Act 1955 which came into effect on April 2012. The changes added Part XVA which states, “Sexual harassment is now defined in the Act as any “unwanted conduct of a sexual nature, whether verbal, non-verbal, visual, gestural or physical, directed at a person; the act which is offensive or humiliating or is a threat to his well-being, arising out of and in the course of his employment.”

Non-verbal gestures like looking a person up and down, staring at someone, displaying sexually suggestive visuals, following the person, making facial expressions such as winking, throwing kisses and licking lips - just to name a few - are also categorized as sexual harassment.

The issue of sexual harassment in Malaysia gained public attention in 1997 when Lilian Therera de Costa, a hotel director, alleged unfair dismissal by her employer, Jennico Associates Sdn. Bhd , when she complained that her managing director had sexually harassed her.

According to a survey by the Women’s Development Collective and All Women’s Action Society (AWAM) back in 2002, among 1,483 respondents from six companies, which had adopted the Ministry of Human Resources (MOHR) Code of Practice, there are approximately a third of both male and female respondents having experienced some form of sexual harassment.

“Power and status of the harassers [perpetrators] are the main factors that contribute to sexual harassment in the workplace,” Betty Yeoh, project director at All Women’s Action Society (AWAM), told Malaysian Digest in a recent interview. Betty Yeoh is the project director at All Women’s Action Society (AWAM). - TMMO picBetty Yeoh is the project director at All Women’s Action Society (AWAM). - TMMO pic

“There are two types of sexual harassment, which is sexual annoyance and sexual coercion. The first type has no impact on work benefits; it just creates disturbance to the recipient of the sexual harassment while the latter brings impact on work benefits such as promotion, increment and other work-related benefits or perks,” she said.

“Men are generally perceived as those with privileges or status in the workplace. This [perception] makes them think that they have tremendous authority, enabling them to harass, victimize, and assert power over others.

“While women generally experience higher risks of sexual harassment, men too are vulnerable to it. Low self-esteem, anxiety, depression and feeling powerless are some of the psychological effects on victims, both men and women, which often results in withdrawal, isolation and resignation,” she added.

Asked what can be done to curb this phenomenon, she said, “We should create a society that strives to be free from discrimination and violence. Since legislation will give proper protection to all, companies must have strict policies against sexual harassment and to create awareness among their employees.”

“Learn to respect each person, regardless of their gender, personalities and background. Survivors [victims] must speak up while the authorities concerned should address all complaints appropriately,” Yeoh advised.

AWAM, a non-governmental organization which focuses on improving the lives of women also provide Sexual Harassment training for management and workers in various corporations and workplaces in Malaysia.

Causes and effects of workplace sexual harassment

Sexual harassment includes a range of actions from mild transgressions to sexual abuse; it is a form of employment discrimination not only in Malaysia but in many other countries, and is a form of abuse and bullying [sexual and psychological].

The causes of sexual harassment in the workplace differ from case to case. Many of the causes, however, are linked to the culture and values in society and in companies, and to the roles, relative power of the men and women concerned, according to Truida Prekel, a management consultant from South Africa who has written and published extensively on this subject.

In most cases, sexual harassment is about power where it has been used as a tool to perpetuate the subordination of women. Other factors include power games, moral values, cultural differences, credibility and victim-blaming, aggressiveness and lack of company policy.  

Associate Professor Dr. Zahari bin Ishak is the Head of Educational Psychology and Counselling, Universiti Malaya shared his view with Malaysian Digest in an interview recently.Associate Professor Dr. Zahari bin Ishak is the Head of Educational Psychology and Counselling, Universiti Malaya shared his view with Malaysian Digest in an interview recently.“The factors that cause workplace sexual harassment are often inter-related. The way our society socializes between one and another greatly influences their behavior [men and women], given our personalities greatly depend on how we were brought up,” said Associate Professor Dr. Zahari bin Ishak, the Head of Educational Psychology and Counselling, Universiti Malaya.

When asked whether certain introverted personalities increase the possibility of being harassed, he said, “It could be partly so but it is not the main factor. Sometimes, people who are outgoing, active and open-minded, be it men or women, are more vulnerable to sexual harassment.”

“In order to curb this phenomenon, the authorities concerned must create awareness not only in the workplace but to the society at large as it affects the well-being of the individual, society and nation as a whole,” he said, adding that the psychological effects on sexual harassment victims can be detrimental.

In Malaysia, the larger multi-national corporations or companies deemed as having higher risk of exposure to sexual harassment, such as construction and factories, have tried to solve the problem of sexual harassment by providing seminars, workshops, trainings, and lengthy presentations.

Ensure employees can recognise behaviour that crosses the line

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Although the Code of Practice on the “Prevention and Eradication of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace” came into force in August 1999, and the criminalization of sexual harassment in the workplace was introduced following the recent amendments to the Employment Act 1955, effective April 1, 2012, there is still a lot of room for improvement.

Statistics produced by the Labour Department shows there were 297 cases ‘reported and solved’ between 1999 to 2010 with an average of 24 cases reported yearly. However, many NGOs feel that the cases reported are just the tip of the iceberg as previously, many companies did not place much importance on these cases, or prefer to ignore or cover it up.

As more women are beginning to enter workforce and the Malaysian government is presently working towards having 55 % of female participation in the country’s labor force by 2015 according to a news report by New Straits Times, the potential for complications arising from sexual harassment in the workplace needs to be addressed.

In order to ensure a safe working environment, employers of both public and private sectors are encouraged to implement measures to tackle and keep sexual harassment in the workplace at bay. It is the moral obligation of the employer to safeguard its employees from any unwelcome hazards that could have unwanted psychological effects on the victim but could also negatively affect productivity, after all.