Employer’s Liability for Harassment

Employers’ exposure to potential liability for harassment

Although the Protection from Harassment Act (“POHA”) does not oblige employers to implement harassment prevention policies or avenues for internal review, guidelines for such policies have been set out by the Ministry of Manpower as part of its Tripartite Advisory. Employers should in any event take complaints of harassment very seriously.

Parliament has clarified that POHA applies to all “persons”, including “any company or association or body of persons, corporate or unincorporated”. Any company or organisation could potentially therefore be found guilty of an offence under POHA if its behaviour was found to amount to harassment. If a company produced a communication which the courts found to be threatening, abusive or insulting against a victim, it could be held liable and be sentenced to pay a fine and/or damages to the victim.

Employers owe a general duty to take reasonable care in relation to employees, and such duty includes ensuring a safe place for the employee to work in, mutual trust and confidence, and appointing competent staff. Employment of an individual knowing that he poses a source of danger/physical/mental harm to other employees is something which could flout the employer’s general duty of care.

The employer may be vicariously liable if the harassment was committed by another employee, where such acts were committed in the course of employment being an act so closely connected with the employee’s employment that it is fair and just to hold the employer vicariously liable. This means that the employer may be liable even if he was not directly involved in the act(s). If vicarious liability is established, the employer will be obliged to pay any damages awarded to the victim which the harasser would otherwise be liable for.

For example, where an employee is high enough in the corporate hierarchy, it might be possible to equate the actions of the officer to the entity itself, as in the Australian case of Trolan v WD Gelle Insurance [2014] NSWDC 185, although this has yet to be tested in the Singapore courts. Outside of POHA, an employee retains the right to bring a civil action against his/her employer in cases of harassment.

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