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From BooksActually to NOC, Are There Any Easy Answers to Address Workplace Misconduct?
Recently, allegations of workplace improprieties committed by owners of well-accoladed local businesses have gone viral and have engendered plenty of online discussion. Founder of arguably the most successful local independent bookstore BooksActually, Kenny Leck, faced allegations of workplace misconduct by multiple female ex-employees (including his ex-wife). Meanwhile, Sylvia Chan of Night Owl Cinematics, a production company that also owns one of Singapore’s most well-known YouTube channels, is facing multiple accusations of workplace bullying and fostering a toxic work culture.
The resulting media attention and online furore shows that there is a standard for common decency that the masses can identify with. The calls for some sort of restitution and contrition can also be (optimistically) interpreted as a strong sense of justice imbibed in society.
However, it goes without saying that not all instances of workplace misconduct will garner public attention. Bringing such allegations before the court of public opinion should also not be the go-to method of seeking resolution.
Employees often have limited discourse
Central to the problem is that most small-to-medium enterprises (SMEs) do not have the resources to set up any kind of infrastructure pertaining to human resources. All workplace procedures and matters are often decided informally.
Small businesses often also have very flat hierarchies – there is a boss/owner at the top, and then one tier down are the employees that the boss has hired. If an employee has a problem with the employer, there is literally no one else in the organisation to turn to.
Moreover, options are limited. In the case of Kenny Leck and Sylvia Chan, their alleged misconduct can be easily judged to be immoral, but it is harder to make a case that they are illegal (with the possible exception of Mr Leck allegedly withholding pay). This makes seeking outside intervention difficult, at least in terms of securing a favourable outcome.
Bringing the matter public and inviting the judgment of the notoriously fickle masses can also be incredibly stressful, with no guarantee that doing so will produce the desired consequence. BooksActually and Night Owl Cinematics are well-known institutions in Singapore, which is why the public has a more vested interest. It also helps that in both instances someone has gone to the trouble of collating allegations from multiple sources (albeit anonymously in Ms Chan’s case) in order to give them more weight.
A lone employee with limited knowledge and ability to generate social credit will be more likely to feel utterly helpless, and not without reason.
Employers must and should take on increased responsibility
Regardless of size and resources, employers must take their responsibility to foster a safe and toxic-free work environment seriously, not least because a subpar workplace is highly unlikely to attract and retain the best employees.
To that end, some of the conventional methods include:
1. Having a clear definition of unacceptable behaviour to your workers
Employers should make clear what exactly is the range of behaviours that is not tolerable, preferably in the employee handbook.
All employees should be made aware of their rights under this policy, how they may place a complaint, and what are the grievance and investigative procedures that will take place when there are allegations of misconduct. Employees should also know where to go for assistance when incidents occur.
2. Holding all employees to the same standard
A workplace policy must apply to all employees regardless of their position in the company or department. Workers must not feel that the power imbalance between managers and employees further down the workplace hierarchy will mean the former is exempt in any way from responsible workplace behaviour.
All managers and supervisors should take responsibility for employee well-being and ensuring that workplace misconduct does not occur in their department. Employees who have witnessed such improprieties must feel empowered and safe to report it; they will be protected from retaliation by the company for doing so.
3. Positive company culture and shared values
The company management needs to lead by example, influencing work culture and climate with respect, civility, diversity, and inclusion. This commitment should be carried out through written communication with core company documents such as vision statements that must be communicated at all levels of the organisation for it to have an effect.
Beyond rules and regulation, a company's culture is shaped by people. Leaders within the company must show their commitment to impartiality and fairness, as well as exhibit compassion and empathy. If the company's hiring practices can also reflect these priorities, then there can be little doubt about what the organisation really stands for.
4. Helping the employees with training programmes and awareness
Various training programmes can be offered to employees. These may include:
Sexual harassment prevention and intervention
Managing workplace violence
An employee assistance programme should help those who have been sexually harassed or subjected to other forms of abuse (such as bullying). Training is also available for the managers/supervisors on how they should handle any allegations among their staff. They need not feel powerless when a complaint arises, by understanding when to shut down certain types of conduct deemed to be unsavoury and when there might be a need to escalate the issue to human resources.
5. An effective, fair, and easy complaint and response protocol
Every company should have a clear complaint and response protocol that is fair, easy to understand, and accessible. All the parties involved should be aware of their rights as well as what will happen if they are found responsible. Companies need to know how to deal with misconduct complaints from within or outside the company; this includes who should investigate it.
This is particularly important for SMEs, where the small size of the company may make it seem like it is too difficult for a complaint of such nature to remain anonymous, or that the corporate hierarchy is not well-defined enough for an employee to bypass the superior that they wish to make a complaint against.
Employing some form of safety regulators, or at least ensuring that the top brass of the company is readily accessible to help handle these matters with discretion would go a long way.
But what is really feasible?
These are good ideas and companies should look to implement as many of them as they can. However, as mentioned earlier, many small businesses simply don’t have the resources to do so. Expecting a store owner with perhaps less than 5 members of staff to provide awareness training or to have any kind of human resource manpower is just not realistic.
This can leave many SME owners in a quandary, not least because identifying what is good corporate culture at a more nuanced level is already a difficult undertaking even with the help of trained professionals. Quite plainly, there are elements of subjectivity in morality, and it is not always very clear where and why a company should draw the line.
Admittedly, calling an employee a “f*uckface” is very obviously rude and unprofessional. But doing so is more acceptable in some workplaces than others (for example, the armed forces or in a shipyard). We instinctively “understand” why, but it is difficult to actually make sense of it such that it can reliably form the basis of a corporate policy. And if we were to put aside the use of vulgar language altogether, how much can a superior rebuke an employee before it is considered going too far?
Similarly, how much should a company interfere with employees’ love lives? Workplace romances may be frowned upon in some places, but they are not at all uncommon. Would banning them completely be going too far? If not, how would corporate leadership judge whether a courtship attempt amounts to harassment, and do so with alacrity and consistency? A larger company might perhaps benefit from the wisdom of numbers and call upon a panel of trained professionals who have experience in dealing with such matters. But would a bookstore owner be able to exercise similarly impeccable judgement, even if he did have the responsibility to do so?
(Do note that we are not excusing the alleged behaviour of Mr Leck towards his female employees at BooksActually, if the accusations of misconduct are true. However, even the exposé detailing these allegations has acknowledged that there is much discussion on whether such behaviour constitutes harassment.)
The point is not to illicit sympathy for any alleged wrongdoer, but to lament that even the most well-intentioned employers who implement policies to broadly uphold the values of respect, empathy, and inclusivity can run into issues which fall between the gaps due to a lack of clear consensus. This can have serious consequences both to those who were hurt and those who have never wished to be on the wrong side of justice.
Rather than react to every public scandal as some form of mob justice, perhaps we could do more to advance public discourse constructively and explicate our collective social conscience.
None of us can claim to be a saint. But together, can we better foster good behaviour, in the workplace or otherwise?
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