In this climate of uncertainty, one thing we can be sure about is that the Covid-19 pandemic has revolutionised the way we work. Just 3 years ago, we probably could never have imagined going months without seeing our colleagues in person.

Work-from-home (WFH) arrangements may be a temporary shelter away from unsavoury workplace behaviours, but the heightened digital connection during this time means that employees can still very well be susceptible to sexual harassment. We wanted to better understand whether the shift to 'mostly' working-from-home over the last two years has had an impact on the frequency or nature of incidents of sexual harassment for workers across Southeast Asia. So we surveyed n=1,000 working professionals per country, across Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines (n=4,000 total), to understand their views and experiences in relation to harassment at work. It's important to note that given the sensitive nature of the subject matter, a number of steps were taken to ensure respondents had the opportunity to opt-out of the survey or any individual question. More information has been provided about these measures at the end of this article.

A look at workplace sexual harassment in SEA

Our survey found that at least three-quarters of respondents in Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines had encountered some form of workplace sexual harassment in the past 5 years, with the exception of Singapore, where about half the working population stated they experienced some form of harassment. These incidents of sexual harassment took on different forms, with jokes of a sexual nature being the most common in all countries.

Has anything changed since Covid-19 and WFH?

We received mixed responses when respondents were asked to reflect whether incidents of sexual harassment have become more or less common with WFH arrangements. Results from Singapore (17%) and Thailand (20%) show a decrease in incidents of offline sexual harassment. Meanwhile in the Philippines, 28% indicated an increase in online harassment and 25%, offline

We also observed a high rate of respondents indicating "prefer not to say", which might suggest there are sensitivities around reporting these types of issues, or perhaps even a lack of awareness and understanding of what constitutes sexual harassment.

We reached out to Adrian Tan, Partner at TMSP Law Corporation, to get his perspective on what constitutes as sexual harassment at the workplace.

‘‘Workplace harassment can fall into two broad categories: physical and verbal. Physical harassment covers unwanted contact between the harasser and the victim. It's a crime in Singapore for someone to touch another person in a way that is intended to outrage the modesty of that person. If WFH arrangements become more common, I would imagine that the opportunities for physical harassment would be reduced.

erbal harassment is harder to define. It involves the use of words (perhaps jokes, or discriminatory comments) that demean or insult a victim. Sometimes, pictures or videos can be involved. For example, a harasser might send a pornographic video to a victim, as a "joke".

Even if employees are engaged in WFH arrangements, there may still be verbal harassment. This is where HR departments have to produce guidelines on appropriate behaviour. When on a zoom call, for example, is it recommended for staff to turn off their videos, or use virtual backgrounds, to preserve privacy? Some employees may feel that zoom video calls are too intrusive and may be uncomfortable with revealing too much of their surroundings or themselves to their colleagues and superiors. HR departments must also provide avenues for complaints of harassment, even anonymous complaints.’’

How do victims of sexual harassment at work deal with it?

The survey results show that victims most commonly turn to their friends to talk about their experiences of sexual harassment at work, with less seeking assistance from co-workers or the authorities. In Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines, more females than males turn to their coworkers. Meanwhile in Thailand, more males than their female counterparts would report to their managers or the HR department.

While some companies may have policies against workplace sexual harassment in place, it is evident here that incidents often go unreported, at least to the relevant authorities in the workplace. This points to a few possible problems:

- Resources and company policies to tackle workplace sexual harassment are lacking, or not properly exercised
- Lack of awareness and knowledge about company policies/resources
- Lack of knowledge on what constitutes punishable behaviour
- Disparities in actual versus perceived support for victims of sexual harassment
- Lack of confidence in the management or company to take appropriate actions, including the protection of victims
- Fundamental lack of support for victims, which is a wider societal problem that stretches beyond the organisation

Among those who did not report incidents of workplace sexual harassment, the most common reasons chosen were that the victims believed that no action would be taken, and that the lack of physical evidence would not work in their favour. In Malaysia and Singapore, there was a skew towards males who didn’t report the incident which may be due to the fear of being judged or ostracised by their colleagues.

The concern that nothing will be done in response to incidents of sexual harassment may not be unfounded, as 25% in Singapore and almost one-third of Thai-based victims indicated that nothing happened after they reported such an incident. And it’s more common for females to report that nothing was done than males.

The new norm of flexible work arrangements has to address sexual harassment in both offline and online forms

At least 60% of respondents across all countries surveyed indicated that they feel safe enough to report a sexual harassment incident. When we sliced the results by those who had experienced incidents of sexual harassment versus those who had not, those who had were more likely to indicate they did not feel safe reporting such cases. Along gender lines, fewer females than males feel safe to do so in Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines.

Meanwhile, the majority of managers in Malaysia (73%), Thailand (81%) and Philippines (80%) think that they are well-equipped to tackle incidents when they’re reported to them, but in Singapore, only 55% feel the same.

These results strongly suggest there is still much to be done when it comes to workplace policies against sexual harassment. The global pandemic has also forced employers to rethink and revamp the way their organization functions. So why not take this chance to review sexual harassment policies too?

Putting in place preventive measures and building a strong support system

With hybrid arrangements more or less set to be the new normal, the spotlight is now on how employers recalibrate their ways of working, collaboration and communication. We invited Shailey Hingorani, head of Research and Advocacy at AWARE to share her perspectives on what can be done to prevent sexual harassment at the workplace.

“We know from the experiences at AWARE’s Sexual Assault Care Centre and Workplace Harassment and Discrimination Advisory, that victims of workplace sexual harassment face a wide range of barriers to speaking up. Many of them believe that their experiences were not ‘severe’ enough, especially if the harassment was not physical in nature; others worry that they lack sufficient evidence to prove the harassment, and yet others fear retaliation from the perpetrator or reputational damage that could follow them throughout their career. Ideally, national legislation on workplace harassment should impose an obligation on employers to prevent and/or manage harassment. This legislation should include a clear definition of what constitutes workplace sexual harassment, so as to address the widespread misunderstanding that we have observed around the issue.”

The notion of national legislation that aims to tackle issues of sexual harassment, as Shailey highlighted, isn't without precedent. In the U.S., 17 of the 50 states currently have legal mandates for employers to provide training on sexual harassment. But beyond legislation, this is an issue business leaders can and should pro-actively address, and now is the time. As businesses and organizations around the world are beginning to accept work-from-home or hybrid work arrangements as the norm, the focus has largely been on developing new models of communication and collaboration. But developing policies, training opportunities and safeguards in relation to issues of sexual harassment can't be overlooked.

Notes on the survey methodology

Given the sensitive subject nature of this survey, respondents were notified about the subject matter at the beginning of the survey and were given a chance to end the survey. In addition, a “prefer not to say” option was included in all questions, giving respondents the opportunity to opt-out of any question. And finally, at the end of the survey respondents were given sources and contact information for organizations in Singapore that they can contact if they have been impacted by an incident of sexual harassment, such as the Sexual Assault Care Centre at AWARE, etc.