Singapore: why SMEs need to address workplace sexual harassment

7 May 2021 | Applicable law: Singapore

In the first nationwide survey on workplace sexual harassment in Singapore, two in five respondents said they had encountered workplace sexual harassment in the last five years.

Fewer than half of those who faced workplace sexual harassment actually reported it, according to the results of a survey conducted by the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) and IPSOS in 2020.

What is worth noting is that almost half of the victims were male – which goes to show that sexual harassment does not affect females alone.

Why should small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) be concerned about workplace sexual harassment, given that it takes place between individuals?

There is a strong business case for companies to foster a safe work environment that is free from sexual harassment and discrimination.

Firms operate in ever more challenging business contexts and good talent is hard to come by in Singapore these days. Employees who feel safe and valued in their work environments are far more likely to be productive, creative, driven and loyal.

Moreover, companies could suffer serious reputational damage if employees were to bring sexual harassment cases to court, if the press were to report the same, or even if employees were to share their experiences on social media.

What is sexual harassment?

The statute that governs harassment in Singapore is the Protection from Harassment Act (POHA). Although the POHA addresses the full range of behaviour that constitutes harassment, it does not specifically define sexual harassment.

Under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), of which Singapore has been a signatory since 1995, sexual harassment is defined as “unwelcome sexually determined behaviour as physical contact and advances, sexually coloured remarks, showing pornography and sexual demands, whether by words or actions”, and that such conduct “may constitute a health and safety problem” that seriously impairs equality in employment.

It is not surprising then that the AWARE study revealed a major gap in the understanding of what constitutes sexual harassment. In the advocacy organisation’s book, examples of what may constitute sexual harassment include the following:

  • Being touched physically in a manner that is unwelcome, alarming, or distressing.
  • Unwanted overtures to establish a romantic or sexual relationship, repeated flirtations, propositions or advances.
  • Being asked for sexual favours in exchange for favourable or preferential treatment like promotions, or conversely, having career prospects threatened for not responding favourably.
  • Sending pictures, videos, jokes, phone text messages of a sexual or offensive nature.
  • Sexual jokes or inappropriate use of sexually explicit or offensive language.
  • Unwelcome comments about physical appearance, body, or sex life.
  • Displaying sexually suggestive objects or pictures in the workplace.

Sexual harassment can occur between individuals of the same sex as well as the opposite sex.

Workplace sexual harassment can take place anywhere and at any time, even in seemingly social settings, so long as the harassment occurred in the course of the employee’s employment.

What can SMEs do?

Companies should aim to adopt a zero-tolerance approach towards sexual harassment, which requires a multi-pronged approach of a combination of, or ideally, all of the following:

  • Policies, which are effectively house rules setting the types of behaviour that the organisation will not tolerate. The employee handbook or code of conduct should include policies such as anti-sexual harassment, anti-discrimination, bystander reporting/whistleblowing and anti-retaliation policies, all of which go hand in hand.
  • Procedures around the filing of complaints and investigation procedures. Ensure that employees are aware of these procedures.
  • Employee assistance programmes such as confidential reporting lines to independent third-party organisations. This is more commonly provided by multi-national corporations (MNCs). Smaller companies should have clear channels of reporting such incidents, allowing employees to bypass traditional reporting lines.
  • Employers should train and educate employees on what constitutes sexual harassment. An effective way of doing this is by providing employees with myriad examples of sexual harassment across the spectrum of behaviours so that they learn to recognise what constitutes unacceptable behaviour when faced with different scenarios. Role play has also been found to be helpful in demonstrating how certain actions or words may be perceived by others. Training, ideally mandatory, is a crucial way of setting the baseline for the types of behaviour the company will not tolerate.
  • Employers should create a culture of inclusivity and transparency. Most victims or bystanders are reluctant to complain for fear of retaliation and retribution. Companies should ensure that they protect whistle-blowers to the extent possible.

Why companies need to eradicate workplace sexual harassment

The #MeToo movement has established a new paradigm for employers and provides opportunities for learning how to create safe, inclusive workplaces.

Companies need to be well prepared to deal with sexual harassment complaints appropriately in order to avoid a public relations crisis.

There is currently no legislative regime for companies in Singapore to investigate and report workplace sexual harassment incidents. However, failure to proactively implement grievance and investigation procedures could potentially leave companies exposed to negative press coverage and public relations.

Companies clearly could be made to pay quite a heavy price if a sexual harassment case were to emerge. Apart from the legal fees that a business may incur in hiring lawyers to defend the company against sexual harassment claims, the company may also find itself having to pay a large sum to settle the matter.

Depending on the extent and prominence of the sexual harassment incident, the company may struggle to acquire or retain investors and corporate partners.

Companies will also struggle to employ and retain top talent if they garner a reputation for tolerating workplace sexual harassment or for fostering a toxic work culture that allows such repugnant actions to go unpunished.

There is a strong financial imperative for companies to take workplace sexual harassment seriously and to take the necessary steps to reduce its occurrence.

This article was first published on the Association of Small and Medium Enterprises (ASME)’s corporate website here on 4 May 2021.

This document (and any information accessed through links in this document) is provided for information purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. Professional legal advice should be obtained before taking or refraining from any action as a result of the contents of this document.


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