Southeast Asia is known for its cultural diversity and an intermingling of people from across Asian countries and beyond. While this cultural context is hugely diverse in nature, the concern of workplace inclusion persists. Much of this is due to the pervasive nature of continued discrimination at the workplace. From small retail outlets to large corporate offices, discrimination is seen in every day micro-aggressions and in larger business-level decisions.
However, with increasing awareness, several companies are fine-tuning their policies and speaking the zero-tolerance language.
And yet, Malaysians and Indians continue to report high levels of discrimination in Singapore, the gender pay gap persists, and cases of sexual harassment continue to often go unreported.
With bodies like TAFEP and services like AWARE’s Workplace Harassment and Discriminatory Advisory (WHDA), alongside strict governmental regulations, a few right mechanisms are in place – The problem is the implementation and the follow through.
So, where does policy implementation go wrong?
Fear of backlash and stigma
According to a 2019 Kantar survey, 32% of Singaporeans expressed that their employers made them “feel uncomfortable”. Apart from discrimination on the grounds of gender and ethnicity, this discomfort also stemmed from their opinions, concerns and preferences going unacknowledged, the survey also stated. If employees are wary of raising an issue even in the most basic of circumstances, and if discomfort and intimidation are a norm, then incidents of discrimination and harassment are bound to go unreported.
To address such reservations, it’s important not only to cultivate a culture of inclusion and acceptance but also, to set a precedent where complainants feel secure. In the event of a grievance against someone, firstly, the complaint needs to be taken seriously, and secondly an unbiased investigation needs to be launched. And through all of this, a complainant’s confidentiality and integrity must be preserved, at all times. Intimidation of any sort will only lead the person who has complained to feel insecure about their job, fearful of their superiors, or uncomfortable, in general. This is immediately counter-productive to the existence of a policy.
Lack of awareness
In a lot of cases, companies have comprehensive policies in place, but employees are simply not aware either of their existence or of the processes involved. Sheathing workplace policies with ambiguous processes and points of contact is not a good idea as it only discourages people from speaking up. It’s important, thus, to have regular internal communications flowing out from the HR team, alongside periodic townhalls to raise and sustain policy awareness. Perhaps most essential is to clearly allocate certain people officially in charge of receiving grievances and complaints, as well as responsible for guiding employees through the process. This gives your employees a fixed point of contact to approach.
Resorting to informal methods of resolution
This is where the importance of awareness and sensitization gets emphasized even further. Companies may have a solid policy in place, and may even have appointed a central point of contact for redressal processes. However, if people management teams are not sensitized about the degree and nature of discrimination and harassment, there may well be cases which individuals try to resolve informally. Also sometimes called the “forgive and forget” method, this can end up trivializing important issues and can make complainants feel completely powerless. If a policy is in place and if your organization has a zero-tolerance stance, then due process becomes an important part of implementation. Your employees must understand what discrimination constitutes, how biases can lead to mistreatment of others, and the magnitude of negative impact that discriminatory behaviour can have on individuals and on the organization’s reputation. Only then, will every individual feel empowered to make a positive change.
A company that is often at the forefront of making such changes is Google. These recently introduced measures comprise a newly established Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Advisory Council, alongside special guidance to managers on how aspects like performance evaluation, compensation and promotions should be impacted when it comes to employees being investigated. They have even put in place a system where a special team is assembled in case of discrimination or harassment claims against an executive. These specific measures that consider all the nuances are an important benchmark to keep in mind.
Ultimately, without on-ground implementation, policies are of little use. They must not feel like a threat or an inconvenience, and instead, must be communicated in a way that make each and every employee feel secure and determined to build a healthier workplace.