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‘Speak Up Malaysia’ Aims to Rectify Workplace Wrongdoings, Bullying and Sexual Harassment

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By Mohani Niza

Publication: Lisaffair.com

Date of publication: 1st June 2021

For the past few years, the world has been witnessing a rise of voices against bullying and misconduct. The #MeToo hashtag, for example, has outed the bad behaviour of a number of prominent figures, such as Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, who was found guilty of sexual harassment and sexual assault, and who is now languishing in jail.

This wave of change has had a ripple effect and reached Malaysia. It is not surprising why: research shows that one-third of women in the country have experienced sexual harassment, and people are speaking up.

Workplace bullying is also another hot topic. 

For example, have you been yelled at by your boss? Made to work overtime without being paid? Treated like a personal assistant to your boss’ whims even though the tasks are outside of your job scope?

Many of us must have had at least one such experience or know someone who has. It’s a kind of phenomenon which is not surprising, especially because Asian society teaches us to not rock the boat.

Furthermore, it is troubling to see how Malaysia scores the highest on the Power Distance Index, which ranks the level of deference that people of a country has towards those in authority (an article by the Harvard Business Review attributes Malaysia’s infamous score to the history of Malay feudalism and British colonialism).

“We are raised, indoctrinated and trained to not defy people in the position of authority. Just don’t ask questions, because it is disrespectful to do that,” Emellia Shariff, 31, told our publication.

Emellia is the founder and managing partner of Speak Up Malaysia, a boutique consulting firm on a mission to rectify workplace wrongdoings, misconduct and sexual harassment.

“My number one goal is to help organisations and communities create safe spaces by integrating principles of social justice into the corporate structures and into workplaces or into communities,” she said.

Emellia has a postgraduate degree in law from the University of Malaya, and previous experience under her belt as a corporate litigation lawyer.

She also worked in a multinational conglomerate before and is in the team that drafted the Sexual Harassment Bill in Malaysia (yet to be tabled at the parliament) while also being the CEO of the Malaysian Institute for Debate & Public Speaking (MIDP) which works on human capital advancement.

It was her unfulfilling experience working in corporate that led her to choose her present career path. She also chose this path due to her deep commitment to gender issues.

Speak Up Malaysia is an offshoot of the Speak Up Collective, founded by former oil and gas legal counsel Animah Kosai, 53, who began the organisation in Malaysia in 2017 and who is now based in the UK.

Animah is Senior Partner of Speak Up Malaysia, together with Shakirah Rahman, 29, who works in education policy.

Together, all three form a girl power team.

Employees are not the only ones who suffer from bad management and toxic work culture. There is also an increasing awareness by companies themselves that disgruntled employees equal loss of business productivity.

Meanwhile, cases of sexual harassment and corporate bullying can cause shame to the company.

While only in its second year, Speak Up Malaysia has had reputable clients reaching out for their expertise, and these include Coca Cola, Japan Tobacco International (JTI) and local radio station BFM 89.9.

Speak Up Malaysia approaches each client on a unique case-by-case basis, based on values such as conversation, respect and care. For them, there is no reason to be combative (in this age of cancel culture, this is refreshing).

The consultancy champions what it calls the ‘Speak Up Culture’. 

“In order for this culture to exist, you need three main actors or components,” Emellia said.

“The first one, we have people who are willing to speak up. So this could be employees at any level, this could mean anyone, any member of the organisation, or if you’re talking about in the context of the community, any member of the community speaking up.”

“But someone speaking up is not enough, you need the second component, which is people in a position of power, who is willing to listen and act on the information that they receive,” she said further, adding that, “The third component is sort of like an environment. This means everyone else, it could be a bystander, it could be people who are friends, it could be an observer, it could be anyone else within that particular context as well, who actually does not do anything to prevent this person from speaking up or to punish this person from speaking up.”

Emellia gave an example: “If Person A speaks up about bullying in the workplace, then you have the leader, maybe the line manager, maybe the CEO, listening to it and say, ‘Hey, that’s serious, I’m going to investigate, I’m going to look into it. And I’m going to take action at the same time.”

“The third component is you have this person’s colleagues, maybe the person being complained about, you know, treating this person with respect with dignity, and not retaliating against them for speaking up.

If you put all of these components together, that’s when you have a culture of speaking up that also celebrates all these diverse voices, and be as supportive to each other.”

Human resource

A vital component towards a successful Speak Up culture is, of course, human resource.

HR can get a bad rep, but Emellia finds this not to be true sometimes, saying: “I’ve also been in organisations where they have such close, trusting relationships with HR departments. It really depends on the organisation.”

“When we work with companies who don’t trust HR, what we do is we do a little bit of a climate assessment survey. We ask them, if they don’t trust it, do you trust compliance? If you don’t trust any of that? Would you trust a committee made up of respectful members of the organisation? We make them talk to a different department, or we put together a different group of people such as a committee, for example, that they can work with when they are filing a complaint, for example.”

This kind of trust is important.

For example, the research cited above also found that only half (53%) of sexual harassment victims said they reported what happened to them. Those who didn’t report said that they felt ashamed to do so.

And then, there is, of course, the fear of retaliation. Emellia defined retaliation as “basically any negative reaction.”

“It could be any behaviour, verbal or physical, psychological, that is directed to another person with the intention of punishing them for doing something right, such as calling you out for telling a sexist joke,” Emellia said.

This could be someone giving another person the silent treatment, isolating a colleague, using their position to demote someone or cut their salary, denying them promotions, and so forth.

“When we’re talking about the retaliation that people face when we speak up, this is really hard to prevent because you obviously can’t control people,” Emellia said.

“But what we can do to help mitigate this problem is by educating people on what your role is, as a member of society, as a member of an organisation, and to understand what it is that you can do to make sure that the situation doesn’t get worse.”

“We do campaigns and awareness and talks, and direct engagements with employees and bosses, to educate them on why retaliation is wrong. And what are the ways for you to respond to someone? Here are some healthy ways for you to express your disagreement without further victimising bullying, or causing, you know, hurt and mental health issues to this person [who spoke up],” Emellia said further.

Safety, Diversity And Inclusivity

Emellia said submissiveness, deference and the concept of ‘saving face’ are not the only obstacles towards creating a healthy organisation.

She acknowledges that sometimes some companies only pay lip service when they say they want to improve.

She said, “Sometimes they when they come to us, they say, ‘Hey, we want to address maybe sexual harassment at the workplace.’ But it’s easy to say that, but the way you would deal with it, your day to day things that you do, every single action that you meet, will actually show.”

“How committed are you to solving this? Or are you just doing it because you think it’s in trend?” Emellia said.

“When you dissect and unpack each and every single decision they have made, that’s when you will realise whether or not they are really committed to it, or maybe they don’t have a full understanding of the issue yet.”

This is where Speak Up Malaysia comes in by educating the companies on what is acceptable and what is not.

“We live in the world that we live in right now, where people are not just outrightly sexist – no one will come up to you and say, ‘I don’t think women should be in the workplace’ or ‘I think women are just sex objects.’ But all of this manifests in a way that is very, very subtle, like subconscious biases, and very, very indirect type of discrimination,” Emellia said. “So I think that’s a big challenge. As part of our work, actually.”

The Collaborative Process And Supporting Survivors Of Violence

Work at Speak Up Malaysia is a collaborative process. Some days Emellia and Shakirah conduct trainings, on other days they write proposals.

They also help draft policies for non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and civil society organisations (CSOs).

“At the moment, we are also drafting a shadow policy on recommendations for the Bar Council to consider when working with Young Lawyers Movement Malaysia,” Emellia said.

That is only one aspect.

Speak Up Malaysia also offers advice and support on a pro-bono basis to survivors of sexual violence.

“We support quite a few survivors when they ask ‘how do I talk to my boss’? ‘How do I write a complaint’? ‘How do I make sure my HR takes it seriously?” Emellia said.

Future plans

Emellia is excited for the future of Speak Up Malaysia, saying, “I think for us is just to continue providing support to as many organisations as possible. My hope is that for more organisations in Malaysia to realise that all these issues that you feel reluctant to address will impact your organisation.”

If you are interested to know more about Speak Up Malaysia, please visit their website.



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