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 decides whether punishable misconduct in employment law is distinguishable from criminal conduct

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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.

Misconduct is one of the reasons which would qualify as “just cause” for an employer to dismiss an employee.

However, it’s not straightforward to pin down an exact definition of what constitutes “misconduct”. Even in instances where actions can be broadly categorised as misconduct, there is often confusion as to whether —

  • a misconduct is serious enough to justify dismissal instead of a lighter sanction; and
  • the standards to be applied to misconduct in the context of employment law are the same as those in respect of criminal wrongdoing.

This potential for confusion was illustrated in a recent case dealing with an employee dismissal for misconduct which went from the Industrial Court (“IC”) through to the High Court (“HC”), Court of Appeal (“COA”), and was ultimately decided by the Federal Court (“FC”). The issues were fully considered in the recent grounds of judgment of the FC dated 8 January 2018 in Akira Sales & Services (M) Sdn Bhd v Nadiah Zee binti Abdullah and Another Appeal (Federal Court Civil Appeal Nos. 01-15-05/2016 and 01-16-05/2016).

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Case Update: Court of Appeal considers whether an employer can dismiss an employee for insubordination

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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.

Insubordination is where an employee wilfully disobeys or ignores an employer’s legitimate instructions. Malaysia’s Industrial Court has established via many previous decisions that insubordination is capable of being a serious misconduct which is sufficient to destroy the employment relationship and justify a dismissal.

However, as is the case for employee misconduct in general, not all instances of insubordination will amount to just cause for an employer to dismiss an employee. The Court of Appeal considered this issue in Ngiam Geok Mooi v. Pacific World Destination East Sdn Bhd [2016] 6 CLJ 395.

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Case Update: Can an employee be dismissed for misconduct off-the-job and outside office hours?

Case Updates (FB)

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.

The general position in Malaysian employment law is that the conduct of employees outside of the office and in their personal time is not relevant to the employment relationship. However, out-of-office misconduct may in some circumstances be serious enough to justify an employer taking disciplinary action against the employee, including dismissal.

The Industrial Court recently considered this issue in Sebastian Matthias Boehme v. Siemens Malaysia Sdn Bhd (Award No. 667 of 2017). Siemens, the Employer, terminated the Employee’s services following complaints received regarding the Employee’s behaviour at a hotel bar outside of office hours.

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Handing employee dismissals properly under Malaysian law

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In this series, we have addressed the general employment law backdrop in Malaysia, legal issues when hiring employees, and how to ensure good employee management. This post will discuss the end of the employment life cycle — the termination of the employment contract, or dismissal.

Whether an employer is sacking someone on the spot, or terminating an employee’s employment contract by serving the contractually-agreed notice period, the employer must be able to show that the dismissal or termination was with just cause or excuse.

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