Too many turning a blind eye towards sexual harassment

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 05 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 05 September, 2013, 2:57am

When a questionnaire attracts only a limited response, it can indicate indifference to the issue. The Equal Opportunities Commission is, therefore, rightly concerned with the low response rate to its survey on whether Hong Kong companies have policies to deal with sexual harassment in the workplace. Only 3 per cent of the 6,000 companies canvassed in the survey responded. It can be assumed that the rest do not think much about the issue, or have no policy at all.

The results from the 198 responses are not reassuring, either. Forty three per cent of companies did not have a policy covering sexual harassment. Of the 113 that have one, nearly half stopped short of providing further details. How well their policies have been implemented remains uncertain.

That companies apparently attach a low level of importance to workplace sexual harassment is disappointing. It sits oddly with the situation reported by the commission. Of the 316 complaints received under the Sex Discrimination Ordinance last year, more than one-third were related to workplace sexual harassment. The problem calls for closer attention.

It is a misconception that sexual harassment is only an issue among staff that does not warrant management intervention. The indifference of employers may be misinterpreted as turning a blind eye to the problem. Not only does harassment strain working relations, victims may fear possible reprisals and do not feel comfortable about complaining. As the commission warned, companies that fail to adopt reasonable policies and safeguards may be sued by employees who are victimised as a result of insufficient protection. In one case, an employer was asked to pay more than HK$1 million in compensation.

Attitudes and behaviour do not change overnight. Although a law against sex discrimination has been in force for almost two decades, employers' awareness about sexual harassment is still inadequate. The watchdog needs to take a more active role in getting the message across.