After suffering in silence for so long, victims now feel less embarrassed and fight back by turning to the law Workplace sexual harassment is expected to become a big issue, both in Hong Kong and the mainland, as awareness grows about what is and is not acceptable behaviour in the office. 'People are becoming less embarrassed to talk about sexual harassment at work,' according to Eileen Dowse, an organisational psychologist and founder of United States-based human performance and training services company Human Dynamics. 'It is becoming an acceptable conversation and an acceptable feeling. I can start to say that I don't like what you are doing. It is becoming more acceptable to say that your behaviour is not acceptable.' Workplace sexual harassment usually takes two forms. The first is called quid pro quo, which is the exacting of sexual favours in return for career favours. 'You may get a ridiculous scenario of 'if you give me a kiss, I'll give you a pay rise',' said Duncan Abate, partner and head of the employment and employment benefits group at law firm Mayer Brown JSM. 'In Hong Kong, there is still an element of bosses, predominantly male ones, exerting such pressure on employees. And there is still substantial reticence among people to make a noise about it.' The second type of sexual harassment is a hostile work environment in which inappropriate conversations, jokes or pictures on the wall, that are intimidating or humiliating for the victim, are tolerated. A typical case of a hostile work environment, according to Ms Dowse, may involve scantily clad women being chosen to be part of an opening ceremony for a customer visit. 'This makes the women employees feel uncomfortable,' she said. In Hong Kong, sexual harassment in the workplace is defined and prohibited under the 1995 Sex Discrimination Ordinance, while the mainland outlawed sexual harassment for the first time in 2005 through an amendment made to its 1992 Law on the Protection of the Rights and Interests of Women. It, however, fails to define the term. 'They have left it to the regional laws to put the flesh on the bones. China has laws but they only protect women,' Mr Abate pointed out, adding that a country with a population of 1.25 billion has had no more than 10 complaints of sexual harassment, with only one or two upheld. 'The law in China offers ineffectual protection. There is a culture in China of not complaining. If something happens, you just leave it and get on with your life, whereas in Hong Kong people do complain.' Ms Dowse agreed. 'When you have people from different countries coming to work in Hong Kong, they tend to be a bit more savvy on the sexual harassment laws of their countries,' she said. 'They say that Hong Kong has a law, so why are we not adhering to it?' According to a Hong Kong survey in February last year, nearly 25 per cent of workers interviewed said they suffered sexual harassment. One-third of these were men. On the mainland, more than half of almost 11,700 women respondents to a People's Daily website survey early last year said that they had suffered sexual abuse in the workplace. '[On the] mainland, we are just starting off. Without a shadow of a doubt, we will see an increase in the number of court cases,' Mr Abate said. 'It will become a bigger issue there as employees get braver and more aware of their rights.' With sexual harassment legislation in place, employers are feeling the pressure to articulate clear guidelines and policies with regard to appropriate behaviour in the office. When a workplace harassment case is brought to court, both the company and the perpetrator are potentially liable, according to Mr Abate. 'If the boss says 'give me kiss for a good appraisal', the boss is liable, but so is the employer unless they can show that they have taken all reasonable steps to ensure that sexual harassment does not occur,' he said. 'Minimally, the company must have a policy in place that prohibits sexual harassment.' The mainland's new labour laws, which came into effect on January 1 this year, require all employers to maintain a written employee handbook that sets out the basic rules and regulations of employment. In Hong Kong, while nearly all large corporations will have a policy on sexual harassment in place, many small and medium-sized enterprises are likely to be lacking on this score. 'We encourage all employers to go for sexual harassment training, to educate all their staff so that the company is not liable,' Ms Dowse said. 'It is very important for leaders to let employees know what is acceptable behaviour. And, as leaders, they should be modelling that exemplary behaviour. You can't tell people to do this and then go off and insult people. Employees are not stupid.' Sexual harassment cases tend to attract a lot of media interest, so most employers, especially large ones, often try to quickly settle a case before it catches the public's attention. 'The key thing is to recognise that there is real merit in dealing with it internally,' Mr Abate said. 'The worst thing is for the company to lose control of the situation.' The direction in which complaints go go is usually dictated by the first conversation that takes place after the incident, he said. 'A frequent response is to act defensively. As soon as you say 'don't worry about it', you are telling the individual that you are not serious about investigating the complaint and they will lose faith in the system and go outside the company. 'Always, always take it seriously. Look at your own system and identify the weaknesses in the system. Look at the complaint from the complainant's perspective. If the complainant has faith that the company will do something about it, then they will let you deal with it.' Companies needed some kind of grievance procedure, Ms Dowse said. 'Companies need to set up a line of communication. Make sure you investigate quickly because often evidence and witnesses become less accurate over time. Get in quickly before the rumours start,' she warned. It is never pleasant to have to investigate a sexual harassment case. Still, it is something that companies must confront whenever it comes up. 'Managers need to be trained to handle these cases, and proper sexual harassment policies must be put in place,' Mr Abate said. Documentation is an important aspect of any sexual harassment case, according to Ms Dowse. 'Keep the records very separate from the other personnel files. Privacy is very important,' she said, adding that the only thing that should be in the harasser's file was the written recommendation and nothing pertaining to the case should be placed in the complainant's file. If not handled properly, sexual harassment can cost companies a great deal of money and productivity. 'Companies are liable if they do not make the work environment safe for their employees,' Ms Dowse said. If there is a high incidence of sexual harassment within a company, that employer will likely experience a high amount of turnover, according to Ms Dowse, which again will cost the company money, not to mention its reputation. She added that people who had been sexually harassed tended to get more headaches, fell sick more often and took more sick days. 'This leads to loss in productivity.'