MANILA - What may have been intended as a joke landed a Palace cameraman in hot water after authorities penalized him for tickling the knee of a female coworker more than seven years ago, an act that the Supreme Court also found to be a form of harassment that merits dismissal from government service.
In a ruling dated Feb. 26 but released only last Monday, the high court's Second Division also barred from government service the cameraman from the Presidential Broadcast Staff-Radio TV Malacañang (PBS-RTVM), saying "unsolicited physical contact, even if done in jest, has no place in the workplace, especially in the government service."
According to the decision penned by Associate Justice Henri Jean Paul Inting, the cameraman teased a female contractual employee of PBS-RTVM by touching and tickling her knee while they were watching a noontime show on Dec. 28, 2012.
The complainant was shocked and felt humiliated, and rushed to the toilet to cry. She subsequently filed an administrative complaint for sexual harassment or grave misconduct.
The cameraman insisted it was only intended as a joke, and was done without malice.
Both PBS-RTVM and the Civil Service Commission found the cameraman guilty of simple misconduct. But since he had already been previously suspended for engaging in a verbal altercation with another officemate, he was dismissed from government service.
On appeal, the Court of Appeals affirmed the findings, but reduced the penalty to 6 months suspension without salary and benefits.
The Supreme Court reversed the CA ruling, and reinstated the penalty of dismissal and disqualification from reemployment in government service. The cameraman's eligibility was also canceled and his benefits like retirement are forfeited.
"The touching of the knee was clearly unsolicited and uncalled for," the ruling said, pointing out that it violated ethical standards for public service under the Constitution and Republic Act 6713 or Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees.
"Even if the act was done without malice, it is beyond all bounds of decency and decorum for a person to touch any body part of another without consent for that matter," it said.
While the SC acknowledged the positive effects of teasing in improving interpersonal relationships in the workplace, it distinguished "playful teasing" from "hurtful teasing."
"Despite teasing's positive effects to interpersonal relationships, it may not always be perceived favorably. The way a person views a joke may differ depending on the situation and on how one perceives a tease -- a teaser's intentions and his/her overall interaction with the teaser," it said.
"Insensitive jokes or actions could border on harassment, due to the fact that targets may be unaware of the teaser's intentions. Therefore, for the protection of all employees, a line has to be drawn before an innocent action becomes a full-blow harassment."
The high court rejected the cameraman's plea to consider his length of service as a mitigating circumstance to lessen the penalty imposed, saying his seniority "emboldened him to commit unsolicited advances." The cameraman has been with PBS-RTVM for 28 years.
"His years of service should have impelled him to set a good example to his co-employees and other civil servants instead of flagrantly and shamelessly violating the law and undermining the professionalism and integrity required from public servants," the Court said, reminding the cameraman that public officers and employees must always be accountable to the people.
"High standard of ethics and utmost responsibility in the public service must be promoted," it said.