Addressing workplace harassment in Singapore - a guide for managers

By Robert Half on 5 September 2023
Estimated Read Time: 5 minutes

In the dynamic business landscape that is Singapore, harmony in the workplace and productivity are crucial components of a thriving corporate ecosystem. And while economic prosperity and innovation are strong focus points within the workplace, trickier elements of harassment and bullying can appear even in the most successful of businesses.

Workplace harassment is not a challenge unique to Singapore. Rather, it is a global concern that transcends borders and industries. It encompasses a wide spectrum of behaviors, from subtle forms of discrimination and microaggressions to more overt acts of bullying and harassment. Irrespective of the form it takes, workplace harassment leaves a lasting impact on victims, erodes organizational culture, and significantly hampers productivity.

It is essential for managers to understand the gravity of workplace harassment and its implications for their teams and organisations as a whole. Addressing harassment in Singapore contributes to fostering a positive workplace culture that attracts and retains top talent, enhances employee well-being, and ultimately drives business success.

What is workplace harassment?

Workplace harassment is an umbrella term encompassing workplace discrimination, bullying, assault, and sexual harassment and assault. Discrimination in this regard might be on the basis of gender and gender identity, race, religion, nationality, sexual orientation, marital status, maternity status, disability, and appearance.

Additionally, it is important to note that verbal harassment – both discriminatory or sexual in nature – is still harassment. And work-related events and the online environment are both equally important settings within which harassment can occur.

In Singapore, workplace harassment is a criminal offence under the Protection from Harassment Act (2014). Offenders can be fined up to $5,000 (SGD) and face jail time of up to six months.

Related: How to create a healthy workplace environment in Singapore

Why is it important for companies in Singapore to address workplace harassment?

Workplace harassment incidents can make the workplace an uncomfortable and toxic environment for employees. Additionally, several studies have shown workplace harassment decreases employee productivity levels and leads to poor overall employee well-being. Specifically, workplace harassment can lead to increased distress, difficulty sleeping, fatigue, depression, and anxiety.

In terms of overall legal ramifications associated with workplace harassment, it is in the best interest of both the victim of workplace harassment and the organisation that incidents of harassment are taken seriously and dealt with swiftly.

In Singapore, workplace harassment victims might – in addition to sueing the harasser for compensation – apply for a Protective Order. A Protective Order (PO) or Enhanced Protective Order (EPO) protects victims of harassment from future harassment.

Related: How to spot and deal with workplace bullying

What are some of the common instances of workplace harassment and how can managers identify them?

There are several types of harassment, some of which are easier to identify than others. Key types of harassment to look out for in an office work environment are:

Discriminatory harassment

This refers to harassment against an employee who is marginalised in some way. This includes but is not limited to racism, ageism, pregnancy discrimination, disability-based discrimination, and gender-based discrimination. Depending on the type of discriminatory harassment, you might hear anything from “jokes” to slurs to deliberately excluding the victim of harassment from meetings and activities.

Verbal harassment

Verbal harassment can often be the result of personality clashes in the workplace that have escalated into a serious conflict. Behaviours include yelling, swearing, threatening. If verbal harassment is directed at a marginalised group, it is discriminatory harassment.

Physical harassment

Also called “workplace violence,” physical harassment refers to physical attacks and threats. In extreme scenarios, this might manifest as assault. Keeping an eye out for threatening behaviour or intimidation tactics can help prevent this form of harassment from escalating.

Sexual harassment

This refers to harassment that is sexual in nature, and typically involves unsolicited advances towards the harassment victim. As a manager, you should intervene when you witness inappropriate forms of touching or invasion of personal space, inappropriate gestures and comments and “jokes.”

It’s important to remember that some types of harassment, such as cyber harassment, are impossible to identify without the abuse victim’s consent and confidence in you as a manager. There is no substitute for developing strong relationships with employees, and providing adequate support in the form of complaint and resolution channels.

Related: Are you setting unrealistic and conflicting goals in the workplace?

What are professional resolutions to prevent and address workplace harassment?

Bullying and harassment is often motivated by prejudice. Employees may be targeted because of their gender, race, sexual orientation, or the presence of a medical condition or disability amongst other factors. Workplace bullies single out and target people who are somehow different from them.

To minimise bullying in the workplace, it’s important to be proactive. This will ensure signs of workplace bullying are identified early. This can help minimise the level of damage done to working relationships and the business itself.

Andrea Wong, Managing Director at Robert Half Singapore says addressing circumstances around workplace harassment is crucial to support an equitable and fair workplace.

"In Singapore, fostering a harmonious workplace begins with a commitment to respect and inclusivity. To address workplace harassment effectively, we must embrace open communication, promote empathy, and empower individuals to speak up. Only through collective awareness and a dedication to change can we create a truly safe and equitable working environment for all."

Andrea has more than 10 years experience in helping businesses with their staffing needs and challenges. She believes that life can change other lives. Andrea is passionate about using her humble influence to make a positive impact on people's careers because her dream is for a future where everyone wakes up in the morning excited to go to work, knowing their purpose and loving what they do, and returns home feeling accomplished, recognized, and financially rewarded.

There is no one simple solution that will end bullying, but implementing a collection of strategies is an effective approach. Here are some strategies you should consider to help alleviate workplace harassment in Singapore:

Understand the legalities of workplace bullying and harassment

As a business, you have a legal obligation to address harassment quickly and effectively for the safety of your employees.

Instate a strong anti-harassment policy and educate employees as to consequences for harassers

Whatever the motivation behind harassment is, the first and most important step is to establish boundaries and educate employees on what the company’s anti-harassment policy is.

Put clear and transparent policies and processes in place. Every complaint should be logged and investigated. Make sure actions are taken to protect the complainant and the bully faces real consequences. These policies and processes should be made easily available for employees to refer to.

Regularly conduct training and awareness programs

Conduct training sessions that teach employees about what constitutes workplace harassment to eliminate any doubt in employees’ minds, while educating employees of what options exist in the event that they are a victim of harassment.

Establish a channel through which harassment can be reported with ease

Having a clear channel through which employees who are victims of harassment can file complaints is essential to preventing repeat offences or allowing an issue to escalate.

It is especially important that managers identify, address, and resolve workplace harassment as swiftly as possible for the wellbeing of their employees and the company environment on the whole.

Create a bully-free culture

Bullying can occur because of cultural, organisational and structural issues in your business. Eradicate this by working towards creating a positive company culture, where employees respect each other. Provide training on what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour. Explain what workplace bullying is, how it is being addressed in your company and how conflict can be effectively managed. Guides should be made readily available to employees for future reference.

Communicate with employees regularly

Whilst you might already have an open door policy, this relies on employees coming to you. Initiate conversations with employees to understand their job satisfaction and if there are any issues you should be aware of. Get feedback from managers too and hold exit interviews when workers leave, to gain additional insight.

Set up peer support networks

Creating a peer support network will give employees someone to talk to that they can trust (who isn’t their boss). This may lead to issues being reported sooner and before they escalate. It may even help to prevent people from becoming bullies. People may bully others as a result of severe work stress, frustration in their role and challenging management styles. Having someone to talk to can help defuse the situation before it becomes a bigger issue.

Keeping an eye out

Most bullying is subtle and secretive, so by the time bullying makes itself visible, you may already have lost good people and seen your team’s morale affected. A good manager actively looks for bullying and intervenes early to fix it.

Provide leadership training

Without proper management, conflicts and disagreements can rapidly escalate. Leadership training should be provided to ensure managers can step up and manage issues effectively, as soon as they arise.

Ensure you have a plan in place to manage and resolve workplace bullying. Your team has the right to a safe work environment, and it’s your job to make that happen.

Related: 6 ways to prevent a toxic workplace culture

Disclaimer: The advice contained within this blog post does not substitute legal advice from a lawyer. In the event that you or an employee at your company has faced harassment, please seek legal counsel.

More From the Blog...