What constitutes workplace harassment?
Workplace harassment can occur when a person at the workplace behaves in a way that is likely to cause discomfort and distress to another party, resulting in an unfavourable work environment for him or her. Acts of harassment may also have the greater effect of affecting the morale and productivity of the organisation.
Workplace harassment can take different forms, including (but not limited to)
- Threatening, abusive, or insulting language
- comments or other non-verbal gestures
- Cyber bullying
- Sexual harassment
This can take place through different modes of communication, including
- Telephone calls
- Emails & SMS
- Conduct (e.g. vandalism, stalking)
- Social Media
Harassment can come from various sources:
- Other people at the workplace (customers, contractors, interns and volunteers)
An example of workplace harassment provided within the Protection from Harassment Act:
There are two co-workers in a workplace named X and Y: X loudly and graphically describes X’s desire to have a sexual relationship with Y to other co-workers in an insulting manner, while knowing that Y can hear this and intending to cause Y distress. If Y does in fact feel distressed, X has committed an offence.
Protection from Harassment Act 2014 (“POHA”)
POHA provides for the criminalisation of certain harassing behaviour. For example, a person who acts in such a way (whether by behaviour, words or other forms of communication) as to cause another person harassment, alarm or distress, will be guilty of an offence. The offence is even more severe if the harasser had actually intended the victim to react in such a manner.
If you are a victim of any offence under POHA, you have the right to bring an action for damages in court for statutory tort pursuant to Section 11(1). If the court is satisfied on the balance of probabilities that the respondent has contravened that section as alleged by the victim, the court may award such damages in respect of the contravention as the court may, having regard to all the circumstances of the case, think just and equitable.
Monetary Compensation may not be sufficient in certain cases and where it is essential to ensure your personal security, you may seek a “Protection Order” pursuant to Section 12. If the District Court is satisfied on a balance of probability that the respondent has contravened any offence under POHA and such contravention is likely to continue or be committed, it may make a Protection Order if it is just and equitable in all the circumstances.
Additionally, Section 13 empowers the District Court to make an “expedited protection order” on an ex parte basis (without notice of the application) that will last for 28 days or until the hearing of the application for the protection order if you are able to adduce prima facie evidence that:
1. the respondent has contravened an offence under the PHA,
2. that such contravention is likely to continue or the respondent is likely to commit such contravention to you imminently, and
3. such contravention is likely to have a substantial adverse effect on your or your day-to-day activities,
and the District Court considers it just and equitable in all the circumstances for the protection order to be made on an expedited basis.
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  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.