If You Decide to Report Sexual Harassment, You Should Prepare to Resign?
The Aftermath Of Workplace Sexual Harassment(2)
Victims of workplace sexual harassment, how are you doing? Are you still at the same workplace? By any chance, is your supervisor taking the lead in making you an outcast? The moment that a victim of workplace sexual harassment makes a complaint, another problem begins. There are many cases in which companies focus on quickly covering up the incident and show no intention of properly dealing with it. Victims are treated as if they were the ones making trouble, and even chased out of the organization.
It is not just workplace sexual harassment but also the disadvantageous measures that companies take in its wake that many women are not enjoying their right to a safe and fair workplace. They are suddenly chased out, or endure each day at their workplace in relative isolation. The group “People Angry about Disadvantageous Measures for Victims of Workplace Sexual Harassment” (also known as “Fire Anger” for short) attempts to collect stories of this kind of situation and create discussion about ways to resolve it. This series will span four articles.
About being asked, “Why didn’t you resist at the time?”
I once caught sight of a ‘rage’-themed segment of a TV show that bills itself as an audience-centric talk show where you can share your worries or painful experiences. It was titled, “She submitted her resignation to her verbally abusive boss. ‘Have a nice life!’” The guest was a woman who told the story of finally submitting her resignation letter to her boss after 5 years of endlessly tolerating his verbal abuse
The guest said, “Oh, it was a really hard time,” and I had a hunch that there was a lot that she couldn’t say on air. But then I was dumbfounded by a question from one of the expert panelists: “Why didn’t you express your anger at that time?” The first thing I thought was, “Ah, that person has never been a powerless employee.”
“Why didn’t you say something at the time?”
“Why didn’t you refuse?”
“Bringing this up now, after saying nothing at the time – are you up to something?”
These are reactions that victims of sexual harassment commonly get from their coworkers when they tell them about what happened.
These kinds of reactions cause fresh pain to victims who painstakingly gather up their courage and speak up. But if you simply asked people who say such things, “Would you have been able to?” they would be startled and unable to answer. In fact, they would be more likely to not be able to refuse or make any protests than those who support sexual harassment victims by saying, “That must have been really difficult,” or “You’re very brave to step forward” would be. Because if they had thought about it just once from the point of view of the person who has been sexually harassed, they would not be able to react with a question like, “Why didn’t you express your anger at that time?”
A considerable number of victims of sexual harassment keep quiet instead of making the problem public or trying to resolve it. There is one reason for this: they think that even if they report it, the matter won’t get resolved and instead will only bring repercussions for them.
Article 14, Clause 2 of the Act on Equal Employment and Support for Work-Family Reconciliation forbids dismissal or taking of other disadvantageous measures against victims of sexual harassment, and the punishment for this is even specified. However, there are many cases in which this law does not function effectively in reality.
Korean Womenlink is one of the NGOs that currently operates the Equal Employment Counseling Office and publishes yearly a book describing the problems that those who come to the office are facing. Of the 781 counseling sessions related to sexual harassment that they handled between January 2010 and December 2014, 24.2%, or 189, involved disadvantageous treatment of victims. When you consider the fact that most of the sexual harassment counseling sessions registered at the Office are registered soon after the incident occurs [and thus happen before disadvantageous measures are taken], it seems likely that incidences of disadvantageous measures suffered by victims in the process of solving their problem, or what is called “secondhand sexual harassment harm,” are actually more numerous than reported.
An analysis of the cases registered at Equal Employment Counseling Office managing organizations Korean Womenlink, the Korean Women Workers Association, and the Women’s Labor Law Support Center, which were among the organizations that participated last March in a joint task force formed to resolve an incident of sexual harassment at Renault Samsung Motors, found that the disadvantageous measures taken against victims include a variety of forms beyond dismissal and forced transfers.
Steps taken by the company to silence victims
Actions by which the company unilaterally terminates the company-employee relationship, such as dismissal, cancellation of contract, and forced resignation, are among the clearest examples of disadvantageous measures taken against victims of sexual harassment. Unfair dismissal is common in small businesses, where it is difficult for the victim to obtain legal protection of their rights as a laborer.
In one of the cases dealt with by the Bucheon Women Worker’s Association last year, when the victim brought criminal charges against her harasser, her company pressured her to resign by putting out a job advertisement for someone to take over her duties and unilaterally clearing off her desk. In addition, there was a case in which a victim was unfairly dismissed by being ordered to train her replacement and then stop coming to work after she reported her superior’s harassment to the company. (Source: 2014 Incheon Women Worker’s Association)
There was also a case in which, when the business owner’s sexual harassment was reported to the Labor Ministry and an investigation into it began, he started the process of shutting down the business (2014 Korean Womenlink). Another company urged a reporting victim to resign, promising that it would deal with the perpetrator (2015 Women’s Labor Law Support Center). With the state of things being like this, victims can’t help but see voluntary resignation as the first step to resolving a sexual harassment issue.
In the case of non-permanent workers like contract workers or temporary workers, the instability of their employment means that they are in a very vulnerable position within the organization and thus are often in danger of sexual harassment. Also, the instability of their position is a reason to keep quiet if they are sexually harassed. There are many cases in which employees’ contracts are terminated on the spot when they report sexual harassment.
Among the cases registered at the Seoul Women Worker’s Association last year, there was a case in which a female production assistant at a network was assaulted by a permanent worker. She asked the network for a public apology from the perpetrator, requested he be transferred, and brought criminal charges, but during the process of complaining, her contract finished and she lost the ability to ask the company to take serious measures. The Women’s Labor Law Support Center dealt with a case in which a woman’s contract renewal was denied for no particular reason after she requested that the company put a stop to her boss’s repeated verbal sexual harassment.
The system under which workplace sexual harassment cannot but continue
Workplaces with a consistent number of workers have internal rules and disciplinary procedures in place. But there are many cases in which these procedures are not followed in dealing with sexual harassment, even though it is one of the punishable actions. Without a fair investigation and handling procedure, the incident is kept under wraps and dealt with quietly by simply transferring the perpetrator or victim or giving the perpetrator negligible punishment such as a warning, taking cursory measures, or simply accepting his resignation.
In one incident registered at Korean Womenlink in 2011, when a victim agreed to allow human resources to mark the perpetrator’s reason for leaving the company as not sexual harassment but “voluntary retirement,” her sexual harassment complaint ended up being seen [by her coworkers] as “an act of cruelly driving her boss out.”
There was also a case in which a woman reported an incident of sexual harassment to the company’s sexual harassment task force, and their inspectors came, investigated, and closed the matter by giving the perpetrator a pay cut. The victim still had to work in the vicinity of the perpetrator, and the company’s attempts to force conciliation became nearly threats: “Let’s end this nicely. Unless you’re going to quit, let’s end this here.” (Korean Womenlink, 2010)
The skipping or bending of proper resolution procedures is in itself a disadvantageous measure taken against sexual harassment victims. It prevents the victims’ recovery and return to normal working life, and deprives them of the right to make a just complaint.
Cases like this in which formal resolution procedures are obstructed happen not only within companies but in external organizations as well. When one victim went out during working hours to talk the police after bringing charges against her sexual harasser, the company then banned leaving the office during working hours and thwarted her efforts to regain normalcy in her working life by monitoring her every move (2014 Seoul Women Workers Association).
Actions that make victims abandon their claim to the right to work without being sexually harassed – that is, the lawful exercise of their rights – are barriers blocking victims’ public attempts to recover their honor and prevent sexual harassment from reoccurring. They can be considered the premiere form of disadvantageous action taken in response to workplace sexual harassment complaints.
“Weren’t you two dating?”, “Why are you making a fuss about such a small thing?”
It is not only the cursory resolution of sexual harassment or insignificant punishment for perpetrators, but also covert disadvantages such as [non-sexual] harassment or being blamed for the incident, during or after the investigation, that make life hard for victims.
In particular, coworkers’ systematic exclusion and criticism cause unbearable humiliation, sometimes become another incident of sexual harassment, and make it impossible to maintain working relationships. Later victims decide, “If I want to report sexual harassment, I’ll have to quit,” and so many of those who seek legal aid in relations to sexual harassment have already resigned when they come in.
As in the incident of sexual harassment at Renault Samsung Motors, sometimes malicious rumors are spread during the course of the investigation by those who have authority over personnel decisions. These rumors, such as “They used to date and now she’s stabbing him in the back,” and “She’s a ggot-baem who’s using a sexual harassment complaint to make a buck,” make the victims work life even more difficult.
In one shocking case registered at the Women’s Labor Law Support Center in 2013, the victim’s supervisor, who had a responsibility to protect her and resolve the issue, said in his testimony sent to the company in which the perpetrator works, “She’s always been promiscuous.
In another case, when the victim made a complaint to the company, the management labeled her someone who “cannot do her work properly” and “makes office life difficult because of her inability to get along with coworkers,” and systematically isolated her.
This kind of action intimidates the victim and results in her being unable to continue her working life as before. A victim who predicts such a result or has experienced it before will avoid making complaints and endure the problem until she can take no more, at which point she will voluntarily resign.
The “learning effect” that makes workers lose sight of their rights
The fact that most perpetrators are business owners or supervisors shows that one of the causes of workplace sexual harassment is the problem of workplace hierarchy. Also, from the company’s point of view, these perpetrators are more valuable to the organization than the victims are.
The defense of perpetrators of sexual harassment, the forgiveness given them before an apology has been made, and the atmosphere that is protective of them result from a view of sexual harassment as a private, not organizational, problem. The goal is not a resolution that prioritizes help and protection for the victim, but one that is fast, no matter the details of the incident.
There are cases in which the incident goes unresolved, despite the company’s good intentions, because of the lack of a formal procedure for how to resolve a sexual harassment complaint, but these are a minority. Companies are quick to take the perpetrator’s side and deal with the issue from his point of view. The tendency not to acknowledge an incident as sexual harassment for the reason that there is no objective proof, even if it is clear to a reasonable person that sexual harassment has happened, is also in line with this.
If there isn’t a clearly-defined principle that the victim’s opinion will be respected and protected and future sexual harassment prevented, all cases end up like this.
Victims and their allies within the organization who feel only too keenly that “It’s useless to make a complaint” or “It will only work against you” understand the company’s threat of retaliation. In the end, they give up on making a just and legal complaint, don’t dare to exercise their rights, and don’t help even when they witness sexual harassment.
This effect is not limited to the area of sexual harassment. They become timid about asserting their rights as workers, and keep silent even when they feel that something is wrong. They end up themselves fostering an atmosphere in which it’s difficult to broach violations of even basic labor rights. Workers who have learned these “lessons” become accomplices in the retaliation (disadvantageous measures) taken against the victim, whether on the company’s orders or by choice, and brush aside the victim’s resistance and complaints. Because that’s what they have to do to survive.
Violations of Article 14, Clause 2 of the Act on Equal Employment, which forbids taking disadvantageous measures against victims of sexual harassment, are supposed to be punished with up to 3 years in prison or a fine of up to 20 million won (17,000 USD). But in reality, even dismissal, a form of retaliation as clear as any disadvantageous measure, often brings only a 500,000 won fine. Once again, one cannot but question the effectiveness of legal measures.
What is actually more important than a law that victims cannot easily make use of, however, is how well the company’s internal prevention and resolution procedures were constructed and how well they function. The importance of the company’s role in workplace sexual harassment cannot be overstated. The Ministry of Labor’s leadership and regulation are needed so that a company at which sexual harassment has occurred can take responsibility for properly dealing with the incident, instead of each victim having to bring their company to account and conduct a legal battle.
Possible measures could include special monitoring of workplaces in which sexual harassment has occurred, strengthening sexual harassment prevention education and creating human rights education to prevent recurrences, and requiring organizations to write both a report on the preventative measures they’ve taken and, in places where an incident has occurred, a report 3-5 years afterward on current measures to protect victims.
As long as disadvantageous measures are taken against those who report sexual harassment, it is important that the burden of proof fall on the company (if it cannot prove that sexual harassment did not occur, it must stipulate that it did) and that the expertise of the people charged with handling incidents is ensured.
Perhaps the most important first steps are that we become aware of the disadvantageous measures taken against victims of sexual harassment, that we as a society agree about the seriousness of this problem, and that we become determined to support victims and prevent sexual harassment.
*Original article: http://ildaro.com/7220
by Park Yun-jin
Published: September 6, 2015
Translated by Marilyn Hook
◆ To see more English-language articles from Ilda, visit our English blog(https://ildaro.blogspot.com).
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