OPINIONThinking Allowed

Sexual Harassment at Work

By Mariam Mokhtar

Your friend confides in you; she is pale, admits that she has not been sleeping well and you have noticed that of late, she is jumpy and makes careless mistakes at work. She attributes these to the unwarranted attentions of a colleague.

She says that the workmate has been making lewd comments about her, both in public and on the few occasions when they are alone in the office. Despite declining his invitations to dinner or the movies, she says that her colleague has not been discouraged but has stepped up his charm offensive. He now sends her text messages which are getting increasingly sexual in nature.

Your friend is afraid and has refused to work overtime even though she would like the extra money. This has also not gone down well with the boss. This job is only part-time but the money helps to pay for her college fees. Your friend’s health is affected and her tutors have noticed the deterioration in her studies.

Many of you may have heard of similar stories experienced by your work colleagues or family members. Perhaps, you have been the victim of sexual harassment in the workplace.

A friend who could not tolerate the persistent attentions, resigned. It was a well paying job in a company which she had enjoyed working in for a decade. Her problems started when her former boss retired and a new manager was recruited. Unable to take the strain of his suggestive comments and his behaviour at work, she left. She found it a daily struggle to avoid him and she was afraid to complain, in case she would not be believed, or worse, lose her job.

Similar stories of sexual harassment describe the victim’s ordeal and the feelings of helplessness and anger. Helpless because there was no one they felt they could turn to for help, and insufficient guidelines to help them deal with the situation; angry because very little attention has been given to sexual harassment at work, which is a serious problem which is not given sufficient attention.

Many women who have been sexually harassed feel vulnerable and that their dignity has been violated. They feel degraded, humiliated and are forced to work in an atmosphere which is both hostile and offensive.

Most remarks are about a woman’s breasts or about her sexual proclivities. Many also complain about being “touched” in inappropriate places or being leered at. Almost all feel that they will not be believed, that their complaints will be regarded as a trivial matter, or that by complaining, their own character will be questioned.

Sexual harassment is not confined to the normal places of work like the office, factory floor, supermarket, warehouse or market stall. Over the years, reports have been made about female Members of Parliament being subjected to lewd comments in parliament. If parliamentarians are not censured by the Speaker or condemned by other MPs for making sexist comments, where does that leave the rest of the population?

If the majority of our MPs lack the drive, energy and moral fibre to take the problem of sexual harassment seriously, does this help explain why Malaysia does not have any laws which deal specifically with sexual harassment in the workplace?

It is important that anyone who feels that they are sexually harassed at work, do the following:

Avoid the work colleague and if possible, do not work alone with him. Tell him if his behaviour is inappropriate, such as standing too close, continually touching or sending text messages with a sexual connotation.

If communicating your disapproval does not work, make a record of the incidents. Keep a notebook on your person, and record the date, time and details of each incident. Any text message or e-mails should also be kept as evidence of his behaviour. Record his sexist remarks on your mobile phone. All the evidence gathered may be used against the harasser.

Tell a trusted colleague at work, who can also observe his behaviour. The more senior the person in the organisation, the better.

Be prepared to make a formal complaint. See a union leader if you are a member. If the boss is guilty of sexual harassment, make the complaint to his superior. Copy your formal letter of complaint to the CEO or Managing Director of the company, and also the Personnel Manager. Keep the letter short, and include a reasonable time-frame for action to be taken. Do not let the matter be swept under the carpet.

If no further action is taken, seek further information from an NGO which deals with such matters or make a police report.

Employers must also take their responsibilities seriously and help free the workplace environment from sexual predators who bully and prey on defenceless women and men.

No one should tolerate sexual harassment at work and no one should be made to suffer in silence or leave their job.

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