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Sexual Harassment in Hong Kong

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The #MeToo movement has had a significant impact in shaking up the status quo on sexual harassment and abuse in Europe and the US. However, it has generated little noise in this part of the world. In Hong Kong, the campaign was met with mixed reaction withrelatively few victims of sexual harassment publically speaking out.

This has led some, including the local media, to question why the #MeToo movement has not generated the long-overdue discussions on sexual harassment in Hong Kong, with more victims speaking out and toppling prominent people in power, as it has in other parts of the world.

A taboo-bound subject
In Hong Kong, sexual harassment has historicallybeen a taboo subject. On the one hand, this is cultural, as Hong Kong remains quite conservative when it comes to the subject of sex. On the other hand, the hesitation to address the topic of sexual harassment can be tied to socially ingrained genderpower imbalances, wheresurvivors of assault have long been conditioned into keeping silentfor fear of being blamed, publicly shamed or having their claims disregarded.

Sexual harassment and any victimisation resulting from a discrimination or harassment complaintare unlawful under Hong Kong’s Sex Discrimination Ordinance, but it is clear thateven more focus needs to be placed on empowering employees who are assaulted to speak up.

Employers have an important role to play
Employers should ensure they maintain a harassment-free workplace. While this is imperative around the world, in Hong Kong this is particularly important, as employers may be held vicariously liable under the Sex Discrimination Ordinance for sexual harassment perpetrated by an employee. In addition to the legal ramifications, the potential for reputational damage is clear, and the loss resulting from this is unlikely to be covered by any insurance policy.

Throughout Asia there is an even greater need to put proper systems in place that allow both men and women to raise grievances without the fear of recrimination, given the historically low rates of reporting and the continued under-representation of women in positions of power. If a complainant feels disempowered to make a complaint during her employment (at which point the employer still has the ability to investigate and respond effectively), the possibility of a future complaint remains a ticking time bomb. As recent events have shown, unaddressed historic complaints are just as capable of tarnishing a brand.

Here are several steps employers may want to take to mitigate the risk of sexual harassment occurring in the workplace:

1. implement equality and diversity policies which address the issue of sexual harassment;
2. have an effective grievance mechanism which guarantees confidentiality of the process and protect complainants from victimisation;
3. provide regular training and communications to all employees to raise awareness of what behaviour is not acceptable in the workplace, and how complaints can be made;
4. ensure all senior managers receive training on how to respondsensitively and effectively toallegations of sexual harassment by team members;
5. investigate all harassment allegations impartially, confidentially, quickly and robustly;
6. provide support networks to those employees who believe they have been harassed at work;
7. take steps to discipline any employees found to have committed acts of harassment, including dismissal where appropriate; and
8. review sexual harassment policies and complaints-handling procedures regularly, including by way of employee-engagement, to ensure they are working effectively

A cultural change is needed

While businesses have a moral and legal obligation to keep sexual harassment out of the workplace, a wider cultural shift is required if sexual harassment is to be eradicated.The government, local media, friends and familyall have a part to play in achieving this. Whether the #MeToo campaign will be the catalyst for this cultural change in Hong Kong remains to be seen; however, the light is now shining on this issue brighter than ever before.

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