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Commentary: Tackling workplace discrimination needs more than legislation — staff training is essential too

Workplace mistreatment has been brought into the spotlight with recent news emphasising the need to address fair employment practices across various sectors.

Workplace misbehaviour and mistreatment can take many forms and may exist in any workplace.
Workplace misbehaviour and mistreatment can take many forms and may exist in any workplace.
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Workplace mistreatment has been brought into the spotlight with recent news emphasising the need to address fair employment practices across various sectors.

From manipulative bosses to malicious behaviour by supervisors and co-workers, unfair treatment often results from perceived or actual differences in personal attributes such as age, gender, race, religion, disability, sexual orientation or other personal characteristics.

Regulations may be set in place — but they are nowhere near sufficient if employers and human resource (HR) personnel are ill-equipped to strictly enforce guidelines, handle and minimise such occurrences, and penalise the perpetrators.

Workplace misbehaviour and mistreatment (or WM for short) can take many forms and may exist in any workplace. If left unchecked, it can negatively impact work performance and health, both physical and mental.

A study by the Institute for Adult Learning in 2022 found that 87 of the 100 workers surveyed who experienced WM over the past five years reported feeling more stress at work, and 76 had spill-over tensions to the home.

Further findings from the research suggested that only one in four chose to “fight” by lodging a formal complaint.

The majority, however, resigned from the company (45 per cent), sought a transfer out of the department (16 per cent), or stayed on and endured the situation (39 per cent).

As many as three in five changed careers and left the occupation altogether, avoiding future encounters with the perpetrator.

The above figures signal the lack of psychological safety and appropriate measures to manage WM in some companies, as many cases involve victims and a higher-ranking perpetrator who has authority over the former’s employment or career opportunities.

Ultimately, choosing “flight” rather than “fight” and avoiding the problem altogether means that victims were not confident of the presence of appropriate measures in place at their workplaces to ensure they would be protected from further occurrences or from repercussions in making a complaint.

There may also be no assurance that the issue will be adequately resolved or may take too long to do so.

This is because WM cases are often complex and multi-faceted, involving contentious parties.

In some instances, there may be inadequate human resource practices and policies to handle WM situations or a lack of management education and training in this area.


Unlike operational matters that can often be resolved within a set timeframe, WM cases require careful and often time-consuming investigations to uncover the full story of all parties concerned, including witnesses, and to consider the circumstances and context of the situation.

Soft-skills training for supervisors can help to equip them with skills such as effective communication, team building and leadership to de-escalate and resolve workplace conflicts.

Similarly, HR professionals can benefit from training in conflict management and knowledge of fair employment practices and policies.

Such training is vital for managers and HR professionals in handling employee grievances effectively with sensitivity, empathy and impartiality.

Workers, in general, can also gain from training in soft skills such as problem-solving, collaboration, communication and self-management, skills necessary to handle difficult and stressful situations in life.

All these skills are helpful but the organisation can only become truly unprejudiced if the management and their employees actively walk the talk in practising fair measures.

No amount of training, however, would be helpful if the HR system is inadequate to manage WM cases. 

Besides a company helpline and whistle-blowing avenue to support formal channels and procedures, there needs to be penalties on the perpetrator for validated cases depending on the severity of the offence.

Information can also be provided to employees on the appropriate recourse to take and resources available, as well as a comprehensive resource guide to inform on good workplace behaviour to adopt and unacceptable behaviour to avoid, case studies, and links to external sources of support for intervention, legal advice and counselling.

Social service agencies can provide such external aid, which is important for WM victims who prefer an independent investigation or for small- and medium-sized enterprises without sufficient resources.


The Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices (TAFEP) — set up in 2006 by the tripartite partners (Ministry of Manpower, National Trades Union Congress, and Singapore National Employers Federation) — has been working to promote the adoption of fair, responsible and progressive employment practices and providing advice and assistance to both WM victims and employers.

In recent years, the Government has taken steps to legislate against discrimination and harassment and instituted the Protection from Harassment Court and the Employment Claims Tribunal.

More recently, the Tripartite Committee on Workplace Fairness announced recommendations to enhance workplace harmony and strengthen protection against workplace discrimination, including the proposed workplace fairness legislation.

These timely measures send a strong signal that WM will not be tolerated in Singapore.

The approach is for conflicts to be resolved through mediation as a first resort, supported by non-monetary (for example, apology or reinstatement of employment offer) and monetary punitive enforcement measures.

It is clear that the proposed legislation attempts to protect both parties from vexations or unwarranted complaints, and against retaliation, with an emphasis on conciliation and remediation for peaceful outcomes.

While regulations and guidelines are present, they may not always be followed or known to the parties involved.

Even with the enhanced measures where non-monetary and monetary punitive measures are applied, proving and resolving WM cases can still be challenging.

Most WM victims typically do not seek redress through formal channels due to the slow investigation process with uncertain outcomes and potential repercussions. The possibility of a fine (for vexatious complaints) would be another deterrent.

This further reiterates the importance of training programmes for all levels of staff, from workers to HR personnel and employers, to fully understand and follow the appropriate guidelines and legislation at the workplace.

This may require workplace transformation involving improvements in the company’s grievance handling and management of well-being benefits and programmes.

While many enterprises provide safe and inclusive workplaces in Singapore, more can be done to provide the available support and training to prevent workplace mistreatment and promote fair employment practices.

Setting the right tone of zero tolerance policy in companies can help foster a workplace culture of respect and dignity that enhances employee well-being and retention, which are important ingredients in a company's success.



Dr Ruby Toh is principal researcher at the Institute for Adult Learning, an autonomous institute within the Singapore University of Social Sciences.

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