'It is my calling to help people': TAFEP officer explains how she handles workplace harassment cases

Work In Progress: To protect yourself from workplace harassment, you must first be able to identify it.

| Syahindah Ishak | Sponsored | June 30, 2021, 06:58 PM

Workplace environments can be tough, regardless of your job.

There’s office politics, work stress and pressure.

It can get overwhelming, and misunderstandings might occur. In some cases, things can get more serious.

That’s where Pauline Chong comes into the picture.

In 2006, the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices (TAFEP) was set up in Singapore to promote the adoption of fair, responsible and progressive employment practices.

As a Customer and Case Management officer at TAFEP, Chong assists employees and employers with their workplace issues.

She also looks into the employment practices in companies to ensure they are fair and progressive.

"My role requires me to be empathetic in addressing the concerns of those in need. I enjoy what I do as I can fulfil my calling of helping people," she told Mothership.

Types of workplace harassment

The serious cases she has dealt with mostly involve workplace harassment, which occurs when one party demonstrates behaviour that causes or is likely to cause alarm or distress to a colleague.

These cases are handled by TAFEP’s Workplace Harassment Resource and Recourse Centre.

Chong told Mothership that the toughest case she has had to handle involved the victim crying on the phone for nearly two hours.

"The victim called our advisory line. She was sobbing on the phone and could barely talk. In between her breathless sobbing, she only managed to articulate a couple of words which were hardly audible or coherent. This continued for 1.5 hours."

Worried about her emotional state, Chong tried her best to reassure the victim that help is available.

"We often deal with individuals whose emotions are running high and who might not be in the right frame of mind to speak rationally. Our role is to patiently listen and, at the same time, try to obtain facts of the case so that we can investigate and address their concerns."

Eventually, the victim calmed down and shared about how she was abused by her supervisor for not meeting her sales targets. This enabled Chong to provide concrete advice to the victim and follow up on the case.

There is a common misconception about workplace harassment though, Chong noted.

Sometimes, people are unsure what constitutes workplace harassment and may assume that it only occurs physically in the office.

This is not true, said Chong.

She explained that as long as the harassment occurs in a work-related context between two parties in a working relationship, it constitutes workplace harassment.

Types of workplace harassment can include, but are not limited to:

  • Language or non-verbal gestures which are threatening, abusive or insulting
  • Cyber bullying
  • Sexual harassment
  • Stalking

Workplace harassment can also take place via different social platforms, such as email, text messaging or social media.

Majority of cases were related to verbal abuse

TAFEP has handled around 80 cases of workplace harassment since 2019.

Chong told Mothership that the majority of these were related to verbal abuse.

"We’ve come across a number of employees who experienced workplace harassment but chose to suffer in silence for a prolonged period before approaching us," she added.

What to do if you experience workplace harassment

It’s vital for an individual to recognise the different types of workplace harassment, Chong said.

Of course, all individuals should be empowered to take charge of their personal safety, health and well-being at the workplace.

But Chong emphasised that it is also important to be familiar with workplace harassment-related procedures in the organisation.

If you have experienced harassment or think you have experienced some form of it, document and keep a record of evidence.

Once you’ve done so, you should escalate or report the harassment encounter to your supervisor, manager, or HR.

If there are no available or independent channels within the company for you to seek help, you can approach TAFEP, said Chong.

Legal protections

All individuals are legally protected under Singapore’s Protection from Harassment Act (POHA).

Chong stressed that if you have been sexually or physically harassed or if your safety is being compromised, you should make a police report as soon as possible.

You can also tap on the pro-bono legal services provided at the State Courts or file for a magistrate court hearing to seek civil remedies.

When asked what’s the most rewarding part about her job, Chong replied:

"I derive immense satisfaction from being able to help someone encountering workplace harassment in every tiny way possible – be it supporting him or her emotionally by providing a listening ear, or by advising on rights and the recourse available."

How TAFEP deals with a workplace harassment case

When attending to an affected individual, Chong explained that the TAFEP officer will first ascertain if they are in a safe place to speak freely and whether they are emotionally stable.

TAFEP officers will then ask the affected individual to share as much details as possible to aid in follow-ups. All information is kept confidential. In cases involving sexual harassment or physical abuse, TAFEP will advise the individual on how to make a police report.

When following up with employers, TAFEP would require the company to provide a report of its investigations of the incident, including disciplinary actions to be taken against the harasser if the complaint is found to be true.

The case inquiry and company’s grievance handling procedure will be assessed in accordance with the Tripartite Advisory.

Action will be taken by MOM against errant companies where the employer had failed to provide a safe environment for the employees or refuse to heed TAFEP’s advice.

Employers are responsible

Ultimately though, Chong said that employers have the responsibility in defining the culture of the organisation.

She said: "They should make it clear that there is zero tolerance for harassment at the workplace and harassers would be dealt with seriously."

According to Chong, employers can help to recognise and prevent workplace harassment by:

  • Developing a harassment prevention policy
  • Providing information and training on workplace harassment
  • Implementing reporting and response procedures

A supportive workplace environment will encourage affected individuals and co-workers who witness harassment to step forward without fear of retaliation or reprisal from their perpetrator.

She added:

"Everyone in the workplace has a role to play in preventing workplace harassment and building a safe work environment."

Top image by Mothership.

Work In Progress is a sponsored series by MOM that made the writer feel more safe at work.