Case Update: A guide to how the Industrial Court assesses sexual harassment complaints

In this Case Update series, I share summaries of recent Malaysian court decisions to explore the current approach taken by the courts when deciding on employment-related issues. You can find all the posts in the series by clicking here, including case updates on other legal areas by TheMalaysianLawyer co-founder Lee Shih.

Sexual harassment in the workplace is a topic that has recently attracted a lot of attention and discussion. While most Malaysian employers have been relatively slow to respond, we have seen an increased focus in the past year from businesses and employers seeking to understand the often complex issues relating to workplace sexual harassment. There continues to be a noticeable increase in momentum of employers putting in place anti-harassment policies and processes, learning how to handle sexual harassment complaints, and ensuring that employees attend external and internal education and training sessions.

As I pointed out in my 2022 employment law forecast (See: “Employment law: 2021 review and 2022 forecast”), this focus on addressing workplace sexual harassment is expected to intensify in 2022, particularly with the increasing public discourse, and in view of Malaysia’s first specific sexual harassment legislation expected to be passed in the first half of the year (See: “Malaysia’s Anti-Sexual Harassment Bill tabled in Parliament”). In November 2021, the government shared that 775 sexual harassment cases had been reported and investigated by police — it’s clear that this is only the tip of the iceberg, and we will see more cases surfacing as awareness and education continues.

While the Anti-Sexual Harassment Act and the “Tribunal for Anti-Sexual Harassment” will provide a new specific avenue for sexual harassment complaints, in the context of the workplace, there has already been some recourse for employee-victims, and scope for employers to take action. Sexual harassment is a workplace misconduct punishable by termination, and victims of sexual harassment who can show that an employer had not properly handled a complaint could potentially claim to have been constructively dismissed (See: “Case Update: Employer’s poor handling of workplace assault and harassment complaints amounts to constructive dismissal” for one example). Of course, as already mentioned, as there has only recently been proper awareness and education in relation to workplace sexual harassment, over the years too many employee-victims have suffered in silence.

With the increase in sexual harassment complaints in recent years, the Industrial Court has had the opportunity to refine and clarify its approach in handling such cases. Sexual harassment can be very complex, as there are many types of sexual harassment. Evidence can also be controversial, as many instances of sexual harassment take place in private, without witnesses. To review the current position of the Industrial Court when it comes to adjudicating sexual harassment complaints, we will look at the recent case of AH v. Cagamas Berhad [2021] 4 ILR 284. This case update will cover the following topics:

  1. How the law defines sexual harassment.
  2. The burden of proof in sexual harassment misconduct.
  3. Are witnesses or corroboration necessary for sexual harassment cases?
  4. Does a delay in making a sexual harassment complaint render the claim invalid?
  5. Is “it was just a joke” a valid defence?
  6. Examples of what constitutes sexual harassment.

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Case Update: Federal Court rules that an employer cannot use reasons discovered post-dismissal to justify an employee dismissal

In this Case Update series, I share summaries of recent Malaysian court decisions to explore the current approach taken by the courts when deciding on employment-related issues. You can find all the posts in the series by clicking here, including case updates on other legal areas by TheMalaysianLawyer co-founder Lee Shih.

It is not uncommon, in instances where an employee has been dismissed, for new facts or circumstances to be discovered post-termination which are then treated as “justifying” the dismissal in the eyes of the employer.

For example, where an employee has been dismissed for poor performance, the employee or employees who then take on the dismissed employee’s responsibilities may discover a trail of errors or negligence that ran deeper than was known at the point of termination. In other cases, the employee may have been dismissed for one reason, but the employer later uncovers evidence of other misbehaviour or misconduct which the employer then takes as further proof that the dismissal was “the right decision”.

While these post-dismissal discoveries may make an employer rest more easily, convinced that dismissal was the correct option, what would happen if the employee brings an unfair dismissal claim? Would an employer who dismissed an employee because of Reason A be then able to justify the dismissal by later saying that, after the termination, they also discovered Reason X, Y, and Z, and that therefore even if Reason A was weak and insufficient to justify termination, the court should also consider Reasons X, Y, and Z?

This was the issue that went all the way to the Federal Court recently, in Maritime Intelligence Sdn Bhd v Tan Ah Gek [2021] 4 ILR 417.

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Employee poor performance: Some recent cases

The proper management of under-performing employees is always a tricky proposition. While the law recognises poor performance as one of the reasons that would constitute “just cause” for dismissing an employee, many employers make mistakes which result in dismissed employees winning unfair dismissal claims. There have also been instances where employees have been able to walk out and claim that they have been constructively dismissed due to the employer putting them on a performance improvement plan (“PIP”).

There are many variables that will determine whether a poor performance termination was carried out fairly. It’s always useful for employers and decision-makers to review how other employers have managed under-performing employees. In this article, I briefly summarise the following recent cases related to PIPs and poor performance dismissals:

  1. Azura Norden v. Small Medium Enterprise Development Bank Malaysia Berhad (Award No. 94 of 2021).
  2. Charles Selvam Andrew Francis v. Kebabangan Petroleum Operating Company Sdn Bhd (Award No. 256 of 2021).
  3. Thomas Kuruvilla v. Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation Sdn Bhd (Award No. 151 of 2021).

These summaries will provide valuable insights on the issues the Industrial Court considers when assessing performance-related terminations.

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