WFH hasn't really reduced incidents of sexual harassment: Survey

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Two weeks ago, Rice Media published an explosive expose on Kenny Leck, founder of iconic independent bookstore BooksActually. His ex-wife Renee Ting, a former employee, said that he’d pursued her when she was 19 and he, 34, and that in the six years they were together, she barely had a day off and was rarely paid.

Other former employees also alleged that he’d made unambiguous, if not unwelcome, advances towards them when he was married to Renee, and the article pointed out that the staff usually fit a similar demographic: female and in their early 20s.

Not that it’s any surprising that this type of unsavoury behaviour is still rampant despite the rise of the #MeToo movement–a recent survey by market research platform Milieu Insight found that about half of the respondents in Singapore have experienced sexual harassment of some sort at the workplace.

But does working from home mean that employees are greater removed from opportunities for harassment? According to the results of the survey, not really: only 17 per cent of them reported a decrease in incidents of offline sexual harassment.

In short, employees, even if no longer on the receiving end of unwanted physical contact, are still susceptible to sexual harassment because of the heightened digital connection.

“Verbal harassment involves the use of words that demean or insult a victim, like jokes or discriminatory comments, and sometimes, pictures or videos may be involved. However, it is harder to define as a harasser may send a pornographic video to a victim as a ‘joke’,” explains says Adrian Tan, a partner at TMSP Law Corporation.

“So even if employees are working from home, there may still be subjected to verbal harassment. This is where HR departments should step in and come up on guidelines on appropriate behaviour.”

The survey results also found that employees in Singapore typically respond to sexual harassment by confiding in friends–majority of them do not seek assistance from co-workers or the authorities.

Milieu Insight suggested that some of the reasons for this include a lack of knowledge on what constitutes punishable behaviour, a lack of awareness on company policies/resources, and a lack of confidence in the management or company to take appropriate action.

“The concern that nothing will be done may not be unfounded as 25 per cent in Singapore indicated that nothing happened after they reported such an incident. It is also more common for women to report that no action was taken,” says Adrian.

It can’t be disputed that companies can do a lot more to protect employees from sexual harassment. And with hybrid work arrangements becoming new normal, the responsibility is not just on employers to come up with new ways of working, but also new solutions to ongoing problems.

This article was first published in Her World Online.