Workplace Culture and Ethics – Has the Bar been Raised for Employers in Asia?

By Seow Hui Goh, Natasha Cheng

10-2021

The co-founder of a Singapore digital media and production company found herself caught in a media storm recently following allegations of employee mistreatment. The events were triggered by an anonymous publication on Instagram containing Whatsapp screenshots of private conversations and leaked audio recordings. Such material, presumably, originated from someone within the organisation or who at least had dealings with the primary parties. This precipitated “tell-all” public statements by current and former employees of the company.

To an employment lawyer, the following immediately springs to mind: Are there potential HR data privacy concerns? Is there a potential breach of confidence or breach of the company’s information security / social media policy? Were there bullying and harassment concerns that had not been adequately addressed? Are there potentially defamatory elements in the publication? Could the company be held vicariously liable for the founder’s actions?

These questions are perhaps more relevant in a containment strategy. 

What is at centre stage is changing expectations of workplace culture and ethics in the Asian context. In the age of social media and cancel culture, workplace bullying, and harassment are much more likely to be called out against employers. There is a growing expectation that employers are acutely responsible for protecting their employees’ emotional and mental well-being. 

As recent events have shown, the reputational stakes for an employer who finds itself in an “Instagram-leak” type situation are high. The speed at which public opinion is formed often and unfortunately does not afford employers an adequate opportunity to remedy the situation. “Prevention is indeed better than cure”. Employers, big or small, local, or international, should take steps to “humanise” the workplace. Creating a respectful workplace environment is not optional. Sensitivity training and having a mindful business framework, effective employee feedback channels are indispensable features of a sustainable legal and compliance strategy in any organisation.

Recent events have also reminded employers that they have little effective means of controlling the online behaviour of ex-employees, as the employment relationship has already ended. Seeking gag orders against employees in Court may also backfire against the employer. We consider that a meaningful and amicable exit process is vital in mitigating the risks in this regard. 

Let’s Connect!

If you would like to discuss any issues concerning workplace culture and ethics to ensure compliance with the laws and best practices, please do not hesitate to get in touch with any member of the Bird & Bird Singapore Employment team.

This article is produced by our Singapore office, Bird & Bird ATMD LLP, and does not constitute legal advice. It is intended to provide general information only. Please note that the information in this article is accurate as of 21 October 2021. Please contact our lawyers if you have any specific queries.