Should employers go to jail for dismissing employees who complain of workplace harassment and bullying? That’s the question in South Korea, where a new law has been introduced that deals with harassment in the workplace. Employers could face jail if they dismiss employees who have been harassed or bullied at work, and can be fined for not investigating and dealing with complaints. "Gabjil" is the word given to behavior whereby employers abuse their power over their employees, and this issue is certainly a hot topic right now. With harassment at work so common that a survey by the government in South Korea found that over two-thirds of employees had been subjected to it, the government has felt compelled to act.
Harassment and bullying at work are not just Korean problems. Around the world, bullying and harassment goes on in the workplace, and Israel is no exception. Although there are not many studies in this area, one study in 2016 on behalf of the Finance Ministry found that 36.9% of employees reported harassment by managers in the workplace. This may only be the tip of the iceberg, as Naomi Landau a leading lawyer in labor law, who represented Guy Eliyahu and Menachem Naftali against Sara Netanyahu, explains, "Harassment at work is a silent phenomenon and many do not report it".
Whilst sexual harassment has been well publicised, and companies must have policies and procedures to deal with it, this is not the case for non-sexual harassment. There have been efforts by some legislators to bring about laws for bullying and non-sexual harassment, but so far no such laws have come into effect. Legislation was first raised before the Knesset in 2015 by a group of MKs headed by MK Merav Michaeli, but for various reasons, it has not passed into law.
Whilst the legislation is still in a holding pattern, there have been strong calls for it to be approved, with the president of the National Labor Court acknowledging that despite legislation not being passed the bill has had an influence over the courts’ judgements. This was a reference to the case of Menachem Naftali and Guy Eliyahu, which led to a judgement of NIS 80,000 in damages for harassment and bullying at work.
One of the issues is defining harassment at work, as Naomi Landau explains: "A delicate line separates a tough boss who poses high demands in a rough style, and a boss whose abuse of employees is systematic and deliberate". In addition, Landau says that fewer men than women are likely to define harassment as abusive behavior. Men are more prone to describe it as "part of the work culture". Just as sexual harassment used to be an accepted part of office culture, with people defining it as a little bit of "flirting" or "fun", non-sexual harassment is often regarded as just "banter" or "joking around". With no "#MeToo" campaign it is hard to change attitudes in this area.
Many feel that harassment is something that happens in other people’s places of work. One interesting study on sexual harassment in the United States showed that whilst 81 % of people believed that sexual harassment went on in American offices today, 90% of those people believed that it was not a problem in their own office. Although this statistic is based on sexual harassment, the situation is arguably similar for regular harassment and bullying.
It’s not just the law that is making employers look at work environments. The financial cost of staff not performing due to stress from harassment at work is high. One 2008 study found an annual cost of bullying to organisations in the UK of £13.75 billion, as there is a financial loss from staff turnover, sick days, and loss of productivity due to bullying and harassment.
So, what should businesses do to protect themselves from allegations of harassment and bullying of employees by senior staff? One way is to implement the not yet introduced law and to put in place policies on harassment and bullying at work and complaints procedures for them. Another avenue would be to assess the work environment, either through anonymous surveys or by asking an outside consultant to come in and cast a fresh objective eye over the workplace and give recommendations as to where they believe positive changes could be made. Training and workshops which deal with conflict resolution and workplace environments can educate the harassers and the harassed to deal effectively with the behaviour.
South Korea has taken a huge legislative step, and whilst it is yet to be seen how the law will be enforced and what onus it will place on employers, South Korea has certainly sent out a clear and loud message that bullying and harassment is not acceptable in the workplace.
The writer is a UK-qualified lawyer and a licensed mediator in England and Israel. She runs a mediation practice in Jerusalem specializing in mediation for English speakers.
Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on July 23, 2019
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