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    Feb 28, 2014

    A power play with sexual overtones

    A NEWLY proposed law, which will specifically make harassment an offence, has put the spotlight on what seems to be a widespread phenomenon - sexual harassment at work, an issue that has been kept largely under wraps.

    In most cases, the balance of power is skewed, said experts MyPaper interviewed. The victims are usually young and inexperienced, and the culprit, typically a senior colleague abusing his authority.

    And, more often than not, the victims hesitate to report the incident for fear of losing their jobs and being ridiculed.

    Ms Corinna Lim, executive director of the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware), said that the victims are mostly women, and that they are likely to be young and just starting work.

    Mr Alvin Ang, who owns a recruiting company, said the problem is both serious and common.

    "The harasser, whether male or female, uses his power, and the victim is helpless. Companies would rather let the powerless person go," he said.

    An Aware survey in 2008 of more than 500 people found that more than half had faced some form of sexual harassment at the workplace.

    Aware handled 45 calls from people being harassed at the workplace last year, but many cases go unreported. Rather than stir what they think is "trouble", most would rather leave their jobs, said Ms Lim.

    Associate Professor Ravi Chandran, who teaches employment law at the National University of Singapore's Business School, said: "The employee may be fearful that he may lose the job if he does complain, especially when the harasser is a superior."

    But harassment is widespread, going by accounts from victims MyPaper spoke to:

    In one case, a woman who did not get her bonus approached the general manager of her company for redress, only to have him lunge at her for a kiss.

    She refused, but this went on for a year until she decided to leave the company.

    In another case, a senior staff member, aged about 50 and seconded to Singapore from a London office, would e-mail a junior colleague incessantly, inviting her to his office under the ruse of "career guidance".

    He tried the tactic with several women, and had even sought to force one of them to go with him to Thailand by booking tickets for her, and asking her to stay in his hotel room.

    A manager would send messages inviting an intern home when his wife was not around, and ask her out in the middle of the night, cautioning her to go alone.

    Victims in smaller firms may find it more difficult to get help, said Mr Ang. More often than not, the company may be controlled by one boss, who may be the harasser.

    With the new Bill, those who have been harassed can apply to the courts for protection orders against their harassers. The offence will carry harsh penalties.

    But experts said that the Bill may not be effective unless victims feel protected enough to come forward to report the incidents. Here is where employers come in.

    OCBC has general guidelines against harassment and bullying, while auditing firm Ernst and Young targets sexual harassment specifically - including subtle behaviours.

    The Ministry of Manpower said that workshops have been held to educate employers on how to handle grievances properly. The policy should be communicated to all staff and action taken against perpetrators.

    And it's not always a hopeless battle. Mr Ang recalled one case in which a client called him shortly after being placed in a company to tell him of the harassment she was facing.

    Her senior had made her stay late so they could work alone and had touched her waist on one occasion.

    Mr Ang then called the company's human-resources staff, who investigated and fired the manager.

    What clinched the matter was the firm fearing for its reputation if a police report was made. There's light at the end of the tunnel.