Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Singapore has robust anti-harassment laws. Although sexual harassment is not specifically mentioned, the Protection from Harassment Act (POHA) 2014 includes any form of sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment in the workplace often involves power play between more senior and subordinate employees. It can take on many forms - from very subtle advances to blatant sexual harassment.

Besides the protection in the POHA, there are specific responsibilities on employers under the Employment Act to provide a safe working environment for all employees.

This article will discuss the Protection from Harassment Act, how sexual harassment is defined, and the different types under the Act. We’ll touch on the employer’s responsibilities, the criminal offence of sexual harassment, and possible penalties if convicted. Also, we’ll look at remedies available to victims of sexual harassment in the workplace, and the steps to take if you find yourself to a victim of sexual harassment in the workplace.

What is sexual harassment?

The POHA stipulates that no individual may cause another person harassment, alarm, or distress by:

  • using any threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour; or
  • making any threatening, abusive or insulting communication; or
  • publishing any identity information of the target person or a related person of the target person.

If the words, behaviour, communication, or publication causes the victim harassment, alarm or distress or is likely to cause such a reaction, the person can be guilty of an offence.

This definition includes words, behaviour, communication, or publication that amounts to sexual harassment.

The Act gives a few examples:

  • X and Y are coworkers. At the workplace, X loudly and graphically describes to coworker Z, their desire for a sexual relationship with Y in an insulting manner. X knows that Y is within earshot and intends to cause Y distress. Y is distressed. X is guilty of an offence under this section.
  • X and Y were formerly in a relationship which has since ended. X writes a post on a social media platform making abusive and insulting remarks about Y’s alleged sexual promiscuity. In a subsequent post, X includes Y’s photographs and personal mobile number, intending to cause Y harassment by facilitating the identification or contacting of Y by others. Y did not see the posts but receives and is harassed by telephone calls and SMS messages from strangers (who have read the posts) propositioning Y for sex. X is guilty of an offence on each post.
  • X and Y are classmates. X posts a vulgar tirade against Y on a website accessible to all their classmates. One of Y’s classmates shows the message on the website to Y, and Y is distressed. X is guilty of an offence under this section.

From the definition and examples, we can see that sexual harassment can take on many forms. It is not confined to what happens on the actual work premises; it could also occur at work functions or client premises.

Threatening, abusive or insulting words - verbal harassment

Verbal harassment includes lewd comments, inappropriate suggestions or proposals of sexual favours, sexual jokes or any other sexually explicit utterance that is inappropriate, unwelcome, and causes the victim distress or alarm.

Threatening, abusive or insulting behaviour - physical harassment

Physical, sexual harassment includes any deliberate inappropriate or unwelcome physical contact of a sexual nature. It could be hugging, touching, patting, kissing, sexual assault, or rape. It could also include stalking the victim.

Sexual harassment can also amount to an outrage of modesty under the Penal Code.

Threatening, abusive or insulting communication or publication

Digital harassment on social media platforms is becoming more common. It includes posting insulting and inappropriate sexual comments or remarks, photos, etc., on social media.

It can also include notes, emails, and letters with inappropriate sexual content that is likely to cause distress or alarm.

What are the employers’ responsibilities regarding sexual harassment in the workplace?

The POHA does not impose any direct duties on employers. However, employment laws impose a legal obligation on all employers to provide a safe working environment for employees. This duty includes taking reasonable steps to protect employees against sexual harassment at the workplace.

The Tripartite Advisory on Managing Workplace Harassment sets out practical guidance for employers. To comply with their duties, employers should put anti-harassment policies and procedures in place for reporting and managing sexual harassment complaints.

What is the offence of sexual harassment?

Regardless of where the harassment occurred, section 3 of the Act states that anyone who intentionally causes another harassment, alarm, or distress by using threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour or communication or publishes any identifying information of the target person is guilty of an offence.

Section 4 of the Act makes behaviour or communication that is likely to cause the victim harassment, alarm, or distress an offence.

What is the penalty for sexual harassment?

  • A person convicted under section 3 (intentionally causing) can be punished with a maximum fine of S$5,000, or imprisonment up to 6 months, or both.

If the person is a repeat offender, the penalty can be a maximum fine of S$10,000, imprisonment not exceeding 12 months, or both.

  • A person convicted under section 4 (likely to cause) can be punished with a maximum fine of S$5,000.

If the person is a repeat offender, the penalty can be a maximum fine of S$10,000, or imprisonment not exceeding 6 months, or both.

Victim remedies for sexual harassment in the workplace

Although the perpetrator can be convicted of an offence and punished with a fine or even imprisonment, these penalties do not compensate the victim. However, the Act does provide civil action for compensation.

Civil action for monetary compensation

Section 11 of the POHA states that any victim of sexual harassment under section 3 or 4 may bring civil proceedings against the perpetrator and claim monetary compensation.

If the court is satisfied on a balance of probabilities that the perpetrator is guilty of a section 3 or 4 offence, the court can award damages to the victim to the extent the court thinks is just and equitable.

Protection orders

Section 12 of the Act provides that victims of sexual harassment can apply for a protection order against the perpetrator.

If the court is satisfied on a balance of probabilities that:

  1. the perpetrator is guilty of a section 3 or 4 offence; and
  2. the perpetrator is likely to continue with the harassment.

The court may grant a protection order against the perpetrator if the court thinks it is just and equitable to do so.

A protection order may involve:

  1. Prohibiting the perpetrator from continuing with the harassing behaviour.
  2. If the behaviour involves communication or publication, the perpetrator will be required to stop publishing the communication or any similar communication.
  3. The court may also refer the perpetrator to attend counselling or mediation. The court may also refer the victim to counselling.

If the communication or publishing involves a third party, the court may order the third party to stop publishing the offending communication or disable access by end-users to the offending communication.

What to do if you are sexually harassed at work?

As we can see, Singapore laws aim to protect employees from any form of harassment in the workplace. If you are the victim of sexual harassment, you should take immediate action to protect yourself and your rights.

Approach your employer

If your employer has proper anti-harassment procedures in place, you can start by reporting the harassment to the reporting officer and following the employer’s grievance procedures. Your employer should then initiate a proper investigation and assist you with filing a police or magistrate’s report where appropriate.

Approach the TAFEP

You can also report your case to the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices. This is often useful in cases where meeting the requirements for a criminal sanction under the Act or a civil lawsuit is difficult.

The TAFEP will engage with you and your employer to deal with the current situation, and prevent further harassment.

Approach the court

Victims can file a Magistrate’s Complaint. This can lead to either mediation in less severe cases, or criminal proceedings against the perpetrator.

You can file for a protection order, as explained above. Breach of a protection order can lead to more penalties.

For personal compensation, the victim can file a civil lawsuit.

Seek legal advice

Often, sexual harassment follows a pattern, and dealing with it inside the workplace can be tricky. In some cases, the employer is the perpetrator, making it very difficult for the victim to take action.

If you feel that you are being sexually harassed at your workplace, you should seek legal advice to understand your rights and decide on the appropriate remedy for your case.

An experienced employment lawyer can explain the different options and differences between criminal remedies under the POHA, and civil remedies to claim monetary compensation or protection from further harassment.

If you are facing a claim of sexual harassment against you, you need legal assistance as soon as possible. The penalties can be severe and costly, both on a professional and a personal level.

An experienced lawyer can navigate the law and guide you towards the best outcome for your case.

Should you require legal representation, kindly contact us for a free first consultation with one of our lawyers.
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