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Women in the workplace: Why aren't we whistleblowing?

By Clara How, Mar 19, 2020

It has been six years and counting since I first started writing for media platforms with a female-dominated audience. Throughout these years, I’ve met many women who have shared about their struggles in the workplace. Some were inspiring. Some made me angry. All made me wonder: how can we do better? 

Whenever I hear stories about women who have been unfairly treated or harassed by their bosses (male or female), I feel impotently helpless. I want justice served. But I also know that when it comes to whistleblowing in the workplace, it’s not so straightforward when it’s your career and rice bowl at stake. The fear of fallout isn’t something we should underestimate. 

So I wanted to find out: is fear alone the reason why not more of us are coming forward? What, realistically, are our options? What can we do to make sure that when a woman raises her hand and says, “me too”, her voice does not go unheard?

* * * *

When her former supervisor started shirking his work, making inappropriate comments and being verbally abusive, Jane* recorded all the conversations, sent it to Human Resources, and got him fired. 

Call me a millennial, but to use Internet-speak, I was ‘shooketh’. And like most millennials, I consider myself sufficiently woke when it comes to social issues. 

I read about the #metoo movement and cheered internally when Harvey Weinstein was found guilty of rape charges. I write stories about the importance of equality. I engage in discussions with my friends about what it means to be a woman in 2020. But I’m not sure I would have the guts to do what Jane did. 

It’s not that I don’t know harassment is wrong, and requires punishment. But if I were to imagine myself in Jane’s shoes, I would imagine feeling a fear of not being believed, or a fear of causing trouble, and being seen as an instigator. 

“I don’t believe anyone should be bullied,” Jane said. “Why is it when someone does something inappropriate, we should stay silent?” Independent since childhood, she left her home country over 10 years ago to live in Singapore on her own. It toughened her up. 

Within days of working with Steve*, she soon realised that he was not pulling his weight. Poor work attitude aside, he started exhibiting predatory behaviour. “He would touch my head, hair and shoulders. He would call me ‘baby’, ‘darling’, and ‘princess’ over text.” At one point, he put his face very close to hers and commented on how nice her perfume smelled. 

At first, Jane wanted to quit, like her predecessors. “But then I thought, why must I be the one to leave? He’s the one at fault. But he’s also the one with 40 years of experience — why would the company keep me and let him go?” She knew she needed evidence, and hence started recording their conversations. 

Her smoking gun came during a heated exchange about Steve’s derogatory opinion on China nationals. “He started saying things like, ‘you’re talking back to me, I’ll give you one tight slap.’ Another colleague was in the room, and Steve told him that he wanted to stick a cucumber up me.” 

After Jane sent a series of voice recordings to upper management, Steve was fired. 

I thought Jane was incredible: she was quick on her feet, had an organised plan of action, and possessed the courage to execute and see her plan through. She also had a conviction that she was not in the wrong. 

But it would also be unfair to suggest that if Jane had stayed silent, that she would not be considered brave, or intelligent, or lacking in conviction. The fear of speaking up is a very real one, and one that I believe everyone has faced at least once. I can recall countless times where I felt like I was treated unfairly but have chosen to walk away. I’d like to think that just because I have not been confrontational, it doesn’t make me weak. Or does it? 

There are many reasons why someone chooses not to whistleblow, and it would be reductive to pin it on one reason. For another interviewee I spoke with, Jina’s*, her decision not to whistleblow wasn’t just about fear, it was also about believing she had a lack of options.

After landing her first graduate job, Jina soon noticed that the company culture was a rather tactile one. Because it was a small company, there was no Human Resources department. Everyone reported to Mike*, who also owned the company. It was not uncommon for a female employee to cry on Mike’s shoulder, or to touch him on the knee during meetings, or to offer hugs. “Because it was my first job, I just assumed that this office had a more liberal culture. I believed that the touching was their way of showing affection and appreciation,” she said. 

During an office Christmas party at a bar, Mike sat close to Jina, rubbed her bare arm, and kissed her on the forehead. 

“I saw him hugging the other girls on the dance floor, and he kissed another girl on the forehead, who had no reaction. I thought, this is just the kind of thing that happens here,” she said. “I told my friend about it, but I kept saying that it didn’t make me too uncomfortable. I kept giving excuses to validate his behaviour.” It took working for another company with a professional, nurturing culture that made her see the vast difference. “Looking back, I know for sure that there is no way that this is acceptable.” 

In the next few months of working together, Mike would guide Jina’s head to rest on his shoulder and hold her hand in the car when he offered to give her a lift home. He would encourage his female employees to drink and sing Karaoke with male clients, even if they were not working on that particular account. 

At the end of her probation, Jina left the company. It was a combination of being overworked, and an increasing discomfort over the way Mike was treating his female staff. 

“There was no one to report these things to. Mike was the only person employees could go to with issues.” And with no Human Resources, there was no one else in power within the company who could lend support. Her reputation was also a consideration. “The industry that I work in is small, and people typically jump from one firm to another. If this gets out, your reputation could get dragged through the dirt regardless of whether you’re telling the truth.” 

She may be content in her subsequent job, but Jina has been questioning her decision to not whistleblow. “In my current company, there are young interns. Looking at how idealistic they are, it makes me worried because that was how I was like when I first started working. If any of them had joined my previous workplace, they wouldn’t have known what to do besides leaving.” 

Jina did consider reporting Mike to the Ministry of Manpower, but “I didn’t have any ‘black and white’ evidence. I thought it would be a huge waste of time, and make things very unpleasant for me.” As for the police, it was believed that because the harassment had no ‘proof’ such as physical assault, it would be seen as groundless. 

When I contacted MOM to ask if I could speak with a representative, they referred me to the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices (TAFEP) — an organisation that I admit I had not heard of until I started researching for this story. Their mission is to help both employers and employees — to help the former create an environment that enables the latter to achieve their potential. But it’s also for employees to seek assistance if they face grievances, discrimination or harassment. 

It sounds great on paper, but if mediation was the answer, many problems wouldn’t exist. The biggest fear that most people have is not being believed, or feeling like nothing can be done about the injustice they have faced. What happens when you file an anonymous report to TAFEP about how an employer has behaved poorly, only to have that employer deny it? 

Is the reason that so many people continue to get away with behaving badly because they escape punishment by denial?

When asked, a TAFEP spokesperson stated that while they urge individuals to report any harassment as soon as they can, the organisation looks into all complaints, including if the complainant has already left the company. They do require details such as the name and contact details of the employer (your details will be kept confidential), but “TAFEP recognises that not all cases of workplace harassment will have physical evidence… and do not require such evidence to commence the investigation.” 

So what of denial? I understand it’s a tricky question to ask and almost impossible to answer given that it’s situational, but for the record: “TAFEP will require the employer to provide a report of their investigations of the complaint, including disciplinary actions taken against the harasser if the complaint was found to be true.” If the company’s processes are deemed unsatisfactory, appropriate policies may be required to be put in place. In extreme cases where employers refuse to heed advice, “TAFEP would work with the relevant authorities for enforcement action.” 

It’s not a failsafe solution, but the important thing is that it is a place for people to turn to. That being said, out of the 35 cases on workplace harassment that TAFEP has received between January to September 2019, few have been sexual in nature. It’s unlikely that this figure represents what’s happening on the ground — which suggests that there’s still reluctance to approach organisations created to offer help. 

Is it because we don’t trust these organisations? How much do we trust the people whom we report to to see it through? 

I had a thought about my own experiences. The closest I’ve ever come to whistleblowing was to give honest exit interviews to HR about unhappiness at work. My feedback on poor management went ignored, according to my ex-colleagues who remained. Even now, I feel angry, because my complaints were left in the hands of someone with a greater power, and this power chose to disregard it. I can only imagine what it would be like for someone who faced workplace discrimination or harassment. 

There is a risk that comes with whistleblowing: that you could do all the “right” things, and still feel dissatisfied with the outcome. There’s never a way to guarantee control in such cases, but when I spoke with a lawyer on what legal options were in such cases, he gave me a new perspective. 

The difference between arming yourself with a lawyer and reporting the matter to higher authorities is that “you are leaving the matter to [the latter’s] discretion as to investigation, charging and prosecuting the manner in court,” says Ng Boon Gan, a Senior Legal Associate at Vanilla Law. 

In other words, it would be up to the higher power if they wanted to take action, and how. But should you choose to hire a lawyer, “you get to choose how to frame your case against the perpetrator.” You would be able to share with your lawyer what your desired outcome should be, and build a case towards it. 

It sounds ideal, but going to a lawyer is another option that most people are aware of, but not many take. Should you choose to press charges, the process can take at least six months and up to a few years, and unlikely to be less than $10,000. It’s a huge undertaking, and understandably, not everyone feels like they have the mental, emotional, or financial capacity to take action.

So if you lay out all the options, they are: go to HR, go to your boss, and failing both, report to a higher authority such as MOM, the police, or arm yourself with a lawyer. If we know what our choices are, why aren’t we taking them? 

The answer might be bleak, but it’s realistic: because sometimes, we don’t believe that anything can be done. We believe that whistleblowing would be futile.

It’s something that Sara* understands. She faced racial and gender discrimination in the workplace, from both male and female supervisors. When she got wind that she had been marked down for a performance review because she was on maternity leave, she confronted her boss — only to have him vehemently deny it. She also had a female supervisor ask her, after a miscarriage, “You already have so many children, when is this going to stop? Is it because Malay people like big families?” 

Appalled? I was too. 

These are just two of the examples that Sara shared. Her friends and family were outraged and wanted her to file a report, but in her words, she just wanted to “hide it away.” 

What surprised her was how some of this gender discrimination came from the women in the office. “I would have thought that empathy and compassion would mean we were on the same page. It just goes to show that this is a huge systemic problem that goes beyond my supervisors and the company — it’s reached the state where some women don’t get it too.” 

That was one reason why she didn’t take action then, and she’s still unsure what she would have done in hindsight. “I dare to say what happened to me now, because I’ve left the company. But I didn’t do anything because I thought it was futile.” 

It was only after she started sharing more about her experiences outside her close circle of friends and family, and seeing the horrified responses did she realise the extent of the discrimination she had faced. 

She realised that the least that she could do was to tell her story. “There’s a place for our anger, but it’s clouded by fear of needing to look after our rice bowl. We’ve been conditioned not to make trouble and to step back, but if we suppress this, we’re repeating the story on loop,” she said. “Things have changed because women have acknowledged the injustice and anger.” The most obvious example: the #metoo movement. 

There’s no clear solution, but Sara thinks it is important to keep talking about the problems. 

“If we ask these questions, it may prick someone’s conscience to address the issues. Once one person speaks, you will hear more voices coming out with similar experiences.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by Jane, when I asked her why she didn’t think twice about taking action against Steve. “People are scared of being the minority. They fear being the first or the only person. But you just need one voice, and the rest will follow because they feel the same.”

When I thought about how I wanted to write this story, I knew I didn’t want to tell women what they should do. Because when I put myself in Jane, Jina and Sara’s situations — I wouldn’t have a clear answer on what to do. It’s easy to say, go do it! You go girl! Report his or her sorry ass! 

The truth is that not everyone is able to pull evidence, to get their boss fired, to have a supportive HR structure in place. Not everyone has the financial means to take someone to court. At one point, Jina wondered if she should be quoted without the veil of anonymity, to warn future employees who might want to interview at her former company. But there is also a very real danger of her safety coming into question, considering Mike knows her exact address. 

But there are other options: you can go to organisations like AWARE and TAFEP to seek advice and support. If you’re not sure what the best way forward is or fear legal repercussions if you whistleblow, Mr Ng points out that there are legal clinics that the public can go to for free legal advice. 

Whistleblowing doesn’t mean just having one modus operandi. You can only do what you can do in the circumstances where you were given. If it just means talking about what has happened, you’re already enacting change. Talk to your friends and family. Talk to your colleagues. Write your story in a safe space, if you feel like you’re called to do so. If you feel ready to take action, know that you have choices, and you have options. 

You’re doing something that can start a ripple effect. You are using your voice to say something hugely important. There are people who will listen to you, and fight with you.

Writer’s Note: 

This month, Dayre celebrates International Women’s Day with two series. The first was a four-part series entitled “What does gender inequality look like in my country”, and was published over the last two weeks. Today and next Thursday, we publish two opinion pieces about the discrimination that women face at work. 

For those who contemplate sharing their experience on social media, Mr Ng advises caution as this can be seen as defamation: “If you post a tell-all and it makes someone look bad, you can defend yourself by saying that your allegations are true, though it may not prevent him from suing you.” 

Another consideration is how easily social media posts can be traced to the source, and to identify proof of damage (such as how many times it has been liked or shared). “The reach of social media is a relevant factor in deciding how much compensation you have to pay,” explains Mr Ng. How viral a post goes is also not something that a user can have control over. 

To find out the location and timings of legal clinics around Singapore, visit the Community Development Council or the Community Justice Centre websites. Mr Ng notes that you will only receive 20 minutes with a volunteer lawyer who cannot subsequently represent you on a paid basis, and who will not be liable for the advice rendered. You are only able to go to any legal clinic once for your case. 

For further options, AWARE has debuted a service called Workplace Harassment and Discrimination Advisory. It is a free service providing advice and support (both practical and emotional) to individuals facing discrimination or harassment at the workplace. Call 6950 9191 to speak to an advisor from Monday – Friday, 10 a.m. – 6 p.m.

For more information about TAFEP, visit https://www.tal.sg/tafep

*Names have been kept anonymous for the interviewees’ safety. 

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