“I know my rights!” A magical incantation we frequently see recited in criminal TV dramas.

Knowing one’s rights may seem unnecessary in Singapore where people generally follow the law and avoid trouble. But… What if you’re getting harassed? What if you feel persecuted? What if you go to work every day and suffer in silence as your coworkers or bosses drive you, slowly and painfully to the brink of madness or maybe even suicide?

Conversely, what if you are a workplace bully – have you pondered your legal liabilities?

Francis Goh, a partner at Harry Elias Partnership, delivered an excellent lecture which colloquially framed the legal issues surrounding workplace bullying, assault, battery and harassment, as well as the newly enacted Protection from Harassment Act Bill.

Rely on yourself, not the law

A recurring characteristic he noticed in victims of workplace bullying is that they have low self-esteem and as a result, tend to let people climb over their heads without protest. Such people also hold on to the mistaken belief that law would always be on their side and the good will always prevail.

Whilst they are not wrong to think that such an idealistic view causes one to rely on law as their one and only safety net, and in an unsavoury situation, they would be sorely disappointed in their time of need. This is because if a certain legal threshold is not crossed, it may be better to rely on oneself than to place reliance on a bunch of statutes that could be hard to enforce if there is insufficient evidence. Which brings us to the importance of understanding one’s legal rights.

Understanding legal thresholds and their nuances

The definition of workplace bullying is simply an “intentional infliction of a hostile work environment upon employee(s) or co-worker(s) through a combination of verbal and non-verbal behavior“. Francis pointed out that if the aggressor was completely unintentional then they are not, technically, by this definition, a bully.

How does one define ‘unintentional’ conduct? As with all legal cases, there is no fixed answer. And no, we are not just trying to smoke ourselves out of answering a difficult question. This reason for not having a fixed answer is because there are so many nuances in any given situation, and the definition of intentional / unintentional infliction of a hostile work environment boils down to the different variables in a situation.

Take for example a boss whose supervision style is to use coarse language with a congenial tone – this certainly would not amount to hostility, not unless he starts using vulgarities in a harsh tone.

Francis went on to explain the nuances between harassment, battery and assault. Simple gestures without physical contact may qualify as assault – for example spitting at someone, to simply waving your fists at someone. As long as the person on the receiving end feels ‘threatened’, the other party may end up in hot soup.

More importantly, he highlights that men should take extra care not to impinge on the sensitivities of their female counterparts. In fact, Francis recommends avoiding physical contact with female colleagues altogether. That sounds like gender discrimination to us – yet we are sure the guys do not want to be hauled into court by inadvertently offending Eve during their celebratory chest-bumping and morale boosting butt-smacking sessions.

Best to check yourself before you wreck yourself

Lying to the police is a serious offence. It is important not to accuse others just because you are in a position of power (shout-out to the ladies), because once a First Information Report filed with the police contains false statements and your mugshot gets out, even the heavens would not be able to save you from becoming a criminal.

Oftentimes, feeling self-righteous in the moment, may cause emotions to get in the way and the idea of trying to get back at the person is just so tempting. If you ever feel that way, stop.

Francis quips, “You better check yourself before you wreck yourself”. Wise words.

Take a few deep breaths and reflect on your course of conduct – was it your incompetence that caused your colleague boss to react in a certain way? If yes, think about whether their reaction was reasonable. If it were just raising of voices, that’s fine. Alarm bells should only start ringing if they physically assault you.

 Stand up for yourself

Francis reiterated that there must be consistent pattern or history of hostile behavior, substantiated by adequate evidence (letters, SMS-es, missed calls etc) before one seeks legal recourse.

As Patrick Tay, NTUC’s Director of the PME Unit and Legal Services Department, has stated in the video above, making a police report should be reserved as a last resort only after exhausting more civilised alternatives such as brandishing knowledge of one’s rights or confiding in HR professionals in your organisation. Alternatively, you can seek the help of your union leaders as they protect over 800,000 over members.

To avoid falling prey to workplace bullies, remember 3 things: Know your rights, be confident and stay objective.