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Bully-free movement?

22 December 2018 / The Star

IN 1916, before the First World War, my grandmother graduated with a Bachelor of Arts from the Women’s College University of London with a major in Latin, Geography and Mechanics. That was over 100 years ago, before women were allowed to vote.

How is it that, as we near 2020, women still have to worry about how to react to bullying and harassment?

In recent times, there has been an avalanche of women from so many different industries around the globe who have come forward, all with the same complaint or revelation of what has happened to them in their workplace, including at the board level.

How many senior executives or even board members will stand up for #MeToo, to say, “I have also been bullied or harassed, at the executive committee, senior management committee or Board level.”

Often times, women are sidelined for promotions, unless “You come to the karaoke club with me.” However, when this is raised to the HR department or to their senior executives, nothing is ever done and the women are considered pariahs for voicing out their complaints. Senior female executives may even tell you not to worry about it, as this is what happens in working life.

We disagree. This isn’t about a difference in opinion, or making a mistake or breaking the rules and regulations. This is downright bullying by someone perceived to be more powerful, simply because that person has a louder voice, has more authority and doesn’t have to listen to other views. Clearly, we can see that the bullying environment has resulted in so many breaches in Corporate Malaysia.

But guess what? The bully is wrong.

We were told an empowering story where a young female graduate joined her first meeting in one of the most powerful military agencies in the world. She had walked into the meeting, armed with her Ivy League degrees (a PhD, no less!). The first instruction given to her by the members of the meeting was to make the coffee. A spirited young lady, she filled the mug with half a cup of sugar. The coffee was so horribly sweet that she was never asked to make coffee again for her senior colleagues.

Not all women are able to make such a stand, nor should they be expected to, especially when the environment is hostile towards gender equality. Many a time, the only approach available for women who have been harassed is to find a senior female member of the organisation and try to seek some guidance from her.

Unfortunately, the refuge may not be forthcoming. Some women have risen to the senior level of the organisation by adopting the attitude that they have to stomach such treatment because it is the only way they will get where they want to be.

Today, most companies have a sexual harassment policy, which will detail the process of reporting, as well as provide contact numbers and email addresses for reporting. The policy should provide reassurance that confidentiality of the victim will be maintained and that there will not be any backlash for reporting. In some companies, this policy forms part of the code of conduct.

In an environment where an open-door policy is practised, and where there is trust in the system, employees do go to their immediate chain of command to report wrongdoings. The HR and Legal departments are also ports of call that an employee can go to.

However, whether staff feel empowered to utilise these channels really depends on each individual situation.

The other avenues for reporting include an appointed ombudsperson, who is usually a board member, especially if it were the CEO or member of senior management who is involved.

Channels outside of the organisation include the Ministry of Human Resource, unions (for unionised staff) and regulators — these are external channels available if the employees fear that their voice will not be heard within the organisation.

As our nation has demanded for a change from a previously-chequered administration, why aren’t we similarly pushing for a change to our current rules in the corporate sector?

So many investment funds are now focusing on sustainable businesses. Wouldn’t a clear-cut whistleblowing policy on sexual harassment and bullying also play a part in business sustainability? Therefore, investors should start to look at companies that ensure fairness, justice and equality for all employees.

 




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