How to deal with harassment at work: An escalation plan

WARNING: Sponsored content by the Tripartite Alliance for Fair Employment Practices (TAFEP)

Contrary to popular belief, bullying doesn’t really magically disappear once you enter the workforce. Instead, it just takes on a different name – workplace harassment.

The bullies?

They’ve upgraded and diversified their methodology as well. Instead of hair-pulling, or nasty name-calling, you might find that workplace bullies have added onto their arsenal.

While we typically associate the word ‘harassment’ with sexual harassment, the term actually includes many other types of bullying, including:

  • Cyberbullying (including nasty messages on WhatsApp/your corporate messaging platforms)
  • Psychological manipulation
  • Threatening, abusive or insulting non-verbal gestures
  • Classic physical and verbal threats, insults or abuse
  • Narcissism: constantly demotivating others and putting others down
  • Stalking

Workplace harassment can come top-down by bosses, but also sideways (your peers), bottom-up (your subordinates), or even from external parties (your clients/vendors).

And in the same way that bullies anywhere else have the power to ruin your life, the bullies in the workplace are not to be underestimated.

The effects of harassment may include: learned helplessness, emotional trauma, anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Make no mistake, all these may affect your mental wellbeing, work performance and in the long term, your ability to make money.

In light of that, here’s our guide to how you might want to tackle workplace harassment.

Level 0: Prevention is better than cure

Before you join a company, it’s always good to go in with an idea of what to expect.

Interviews are a good way to learn more about the company’s culture and pick up (bad) vibes.

For example, if your boss-to-be is already asking inappropriate questions during the interview, you might want to reconsider joining.

Companies that have ‘team rounds’ or ‘cultural fit’ interviews should also give you an opportunity to suss out what goes on in the workplace.

Alternatively, you can also try to ask people within the company. Other sources such as reviews or testimonials should also give you some insights of what to expect.

That said, there’s only so much you can know about a company without experiencing it for yourself.

Level 1: Deploy Private Diplomacy

To be absolutely honest, we prefer to solve these things person-to-person as an opening move – especially if there’s ambiguity behind the intentions of the bully.

Sometimes people are just intimidating or overbearing without knowing. And unless the offence is super serious (i.e. punching you in the face), giving people the benefit of the doubt is a good place to start.

For that reason, our preference is diplomacy first – have a firm conversation with the bully in private about how their actions affected you.

The pros of this approach include:

  • People tend to be less defensive when confronted privately about a possible wrongdoing
  • If the harassment was indeed unintentional, you help improve someone’s behaviour without hurting the relationship
  • You allow the bully to explain their POV
  • You can still be firm while playing nice

You might say: “Hey < >, can I have a word? I wanted to talk about what happened earlier today. I was uncomfortable because < >, I hope you can reconsider doing that in the future because < >.

To be absolutely honest, non-confrontational Singaporeans might find this step an immensely difficult thing to do. But this sure beats the conventional alternative: suffering in silence.

In our experience, just going to this stage helps clear up many, many possible misunderstandings.

So it’s really, really, really, important you don’t skip it.

Level 2: Deploy Open Diplomacy

Of course, some harassers carry out their actions with intent and malice. After you’ve tried private diplomacy and it doesn’t work, you might want to consider taking it public, particularly if you’re not the kind who shies away from confrontation.

This includes pointing out instances of harassment (“That was an inappropriate thing to say”), or informing other co-workers of your experience.

The pros of this approach:

  • You create social pressure for the bully to stop their behaviour
  • You create witnesses to your harassment, who might come in handy later down the line
  • If others have also suffered harassment, y’all can corroborate and build a case together. Apes together strong.
  • If you are afraid of being judged as a troublemaker, this will help

Of course, when doing so, it’s really important that you don’t escalate the situation in a way that your actions can be construed as harassment as well (i.e. name-calling, physical abuse).

Level 3: Approach HR or your superior

To improve your odds when you approach HR or superior, it’s best if you have built a strong case against your harasser. Otherwise, it’s just a matter of your word against theirs.

Recordings. Text message screenshots. Emails. CCTV footage. This gathered evidence will all help with the company’s internal investigation process.

Often, this is the moment of truth; whether your company will take action, or opt to turn a blind eye.

At this juncture, you might be worried that you could be fired for reporting harassment – but that’s what the Wrongful Dismissal Claim is for. You can file it with the Tripartite Alliance for Dispute Management (TADM).

Just to be clear: It is wrong for companies to fire someone because they reported workplace harassment. (We suggest also recording your reporting of the harassment for this reason.)

PS: In case you’re worried about infringing the Personal Data Protection Act (PDPA), it only applies to companies, not individuals. But exercise discretion when you do so. Please don’t hack into your company’s computer though. That’s still illegal.

Of course, if your harasser is your superior and/or you do not have a relevant HR or company rep to talk to, skip to Level 4.

Level 4: Seek external help 

If you’re unsatisfied with how the company handled your report or if these internal reporting channels are not available, then it’s time to call in the Tripartite Alliance for Fair Employment Practices (TAFEP) – the national watchdog – for an independent assessment. (Everything shared will be kept private and confidential)

A fair bit of caution: Most employers don’t particularly enjoy being investigated by TAFEP as it takes up a significant amount of time and resources.

Be absolutely sure before you escalate it to this point.

In addition, many people have the impression that calling in TAFEP will result in the firing of the person they are complaining against.

It is important to remember that TAFEP is not there to be your executioner.

Instead, it’s there to ensure that the company has handled your harassment case fairly for all parties. That’s why we’ve stressed about collecting evidence so that the outcome can more likely be in your favour. If the company finds that harassment did take place, there could be a range of disciplinary action, including terminations, warning letters and apologies to the affected individuals.

TAFEP can also:

  • Provide advice on possible actions that you can take
  • Require the company to investigate your case in a sensitive manner (upon your request) i.e if the harasser is your superior, they will ensure that your superior is not involved in this investigation.
  • Make your company provide assurance that you will not get penalised for making a report
  • Ensure the company provides a report of the investigations, including disciplinary action against the harasser, and proper closure
  • Require and support the company to put in place grievance handling or harassment reporting procedure.

The Nuclear Option: police reports, private lawsuits

Sitting at the final end of the spectrum is the nuclear option that we hope you never have to use:

Lawyers can be expensive creatures to hire, and you can be sure that reporting someone to the police is a surefire way to end any amicable relationship.

All that being said, sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do to right the wrongs you’ve faced.

Some instances of harassment that you shouldn’t ignore are:

  • Acts causing physical harm, molestation
  • Provoking violence, threats, abuse workers
  • Unlawful stalking

These need to be stopped immediately and be reported to the Police. If you’ve approached TAFEP about this, they will also advise you to make a police report against the harassment under the Protection from Harassment Act (POHA) or seek civil remedies against the harasser (e.g. Protection Order).

(For less serious forms of harassment, we think that there’s room for it to be handled before escalating it to the authorities.)

At the end of the day, the truth is a lot of harassment lies in a grey area.  At the end of the day, you have to decide how far you’re willing to go.

No one has the right to pressure you not to report (or even to report!)

The individual cannot fight workplace harassment alone

While employees deserve a safe, healthy and harmonious working environment, we would be doing you a disservice if we say that ending workplace harassment is solely on employees.

After all, there are other players in this whole ecosystem.

Employers and HR practitioners, for example, need to take more proactive steps in weeding out harassment and reducing the stigma of whistleblowers as troublemakers.

They should also develop a zero-tolerance approach that includes:

  • Develop a harassment prevention policy and communicate this to all staff;
  • Provide information and training on harassment, especially to HR and supervisors handling harassment cases;
  • Implement reporting and response procedures so that cases are investigated and victims get closure.

At the same time, government organisations can constantly review their policies and work with tripartite partners and other stakeholders to see how we can hold bullies accountable.

Co-workers who witnessed these incidents can also assist affected individuals and alert the management or make a report to TAFEP.

Make no mistake, these are easier said than done. The grey areas and the lack of evidence can further complicate things.

One thing is clear to us though – the more people know their rights and do their part, the more likely change will come.

So let us be that generation of change.

Stay woke, salaryman.

A message from our sponsor, TAFEP

If you’re facing workplace harassment and in need of some guidance on what to do, TAFEP’s here to help.

While they aren’t a fairy godparent that’s going to magically solve all your problems, what they can do is to provide advice and actionable steps from a third-party point-of-view – and even step in to speak to your employers if that is something you are comfortable with.

And if you’re worried about being flagged out as the whistleblower, everything that is shared with TAFEP is kept private and confidential. TAFEP can also advise on possible actions that you should take and ensure that employers put in place policies and procedures to prevent further incidents of workplace harassment.

If you’re ready to speak to someone about the harassment you’ve been facing at the workplace, you can:

  • Call TAFEP’s Workplace Harassment Resource and Recourse Centre at 6838-0969 to speak to an officer
  • Submit an online report at tafep.sg/contact-us.
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