Sexual Harassment at Workplace in India – Few Thoughts

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Sexual harassment continues to plague workplaces in India. The INBA survey (2016) done across private sector organisations reveals that work place was the most sexually aggressive place in their lives of women. Human resource management is primarily about designing and applying formal systems within the organisation to ensure fulfillment of organisational goals through building and maintaining effective employee engagement.

Hence it is the responsibility of the Human Resource (HR) department within the companies to accomplish sexual harassment prevention and provide mechanisms to deal with it. It is only when companies clearly articulate, uphold its code of conduct and introduce a transparent redress system that there will be better productivity, higher efficiency, secure employees and boosting of the company image within the industry. This is article highlights certain key points for effective prevention and redress of sexual harassment as mandated by the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 (hereafter referred to as ‘the Act’)

Definition of sexual harassment The Act defines sexual harassment as any unwelcome behaviour whether directly or by implication. However it needs to be understood that unwelcomeness of the behaviour is to be interpreted on the basis of subjective perception of the woman. Whenever a complaint of sexual harassment at workplace is referred to the Internal Committee (IC), sufficient room should be provided by the IC members to accommodate varying perceptions and comfort levels of women depending on gendered socialisation, cultural beliefs and contextual factors such as location, caste, class and religion, age, ethnic background resulting in diverse personal boundaries. Further it is important to realise that since sexual harassment results from complex dynamics of gender, power and sexuality at the workplace, a particular behaviour interpreted as sexual harassment by one woman may not be the same for other women. At the first instance, the woman may not be sure about the unwelcome nature of the behaviour. She may either ignore it or respond courteously out of compulsion, only to complain at a later date. Reporting sexual harassment is a multifaceted journey influenced by various factors for women to reach a point where they are able to acknowledge and report sexual harassment. If these factors are not considered adequately, the organisation could run the risk of justifying objectionable conduct as normal, leading to dismissal of valid complaints of sexual harassment and wrongly treating them as out of purview of the law.

Policy A Joint Parliamentary Committee report of 2011 revealed that a law safeguarding the rights of women at their workplace was needed. The report further said that since there were no studies focused on sexual harassment of men at workplaces, gender based classification of complaints was not possible. The Committee concluded that given the patriarchal nature of Indian society, the number of women needing redress from sexual harassment at workplaces was high. This is a gender specific legislation which is an example of an explicit form of affirmative action under Section 15(3) of the Indian Constitution, which allows the State to enact special laws for women.

Thus it is important that the organisation policy on sexual harassment is in harmony with the law of land. But there could be differences of opinion regarding gender neutrality or specificity of the policy. Since, the category of complainant in the Act includes only women; organisations can choose to create gender neutral anti sexual harassment policy to allow men and others to complain of sexual harassment. However those organisations who might decide to have policy based on the law, should communicate to men and others that they could complain of sexual harassment under the company code of conduct.

It should be noted that since there is special law for prevention and redress of sexual harassment concerning women, such complaints will have definite legal implications for the organisation. Additionally, IC constituted under the Act will have its jurisdiction only over complaints from women while complaints from men will have to be inquired into by the HR department or a separate grievance redress mechanism. This is because the IC being a mechanism dominated by women it could bring in discomfort to men as complainants. Also, there could be complaints from men complaints regarding IC being biased in the favour of women. Above all, The Act mandates that employers create and widely disseminate anti sexual harassment policies pronouncing organisation values and zero tolerance to sexual harassment.

Prevention – Awareness sessions are key tool for prevention of sexual harassment. Besides curbing sexual harassment primary goal of these sessions is promoting confidence for reporting the same. Hence they should be done creatively and differently to maintain interest levels of employees. This brings in importance of classroom sessions which needs to be specifically underlined. The trend to put large number of employees through cartoon based, generalised, sometimes legally incorrect, mundane and monotonous online awareness sessions lacking personal touch is a dangerous trend. Though online modules could be cost saving and ensure mandatory reach to numerous employees it can be damaging. On the contrary classroom rooms conducted by trainers familiar with the issue and / or having expertise are live, culture specific, engaging, and dynamic. Such sessions allow nuanced discussions on difficult areas including gender neutrality of the policy, false complaints, nature of penalties prescribed by law, concept of personal boundary examples of unwelcome behaviour, intention versus impact etc. Furthermore face to face sessions are helpful in educating managers / supervisors on legally correct ways of taking steps when faced with complaints of sexual harassment.

Role of Leadership in Prevention Awareness generation should be done and emphasised at regular intervals. Consistent awareness creation requires allocation of resources by the employer. It will communicate employer commitment and dedication to the effort. Organising and conducting awareness sessions should not be restricted as a responsibility of the HR department. Rather it should reflect involvement of the employer and the IC. Further senior management and IC members can demonstrate their interest and dedication by addressing a session and / or participating in it while it is being conducted. Least that can be done is a communication from the leaders and IC members to all employees emphasising significance and purpose of such sessions.

Since prevention of sexual harassment is correlated to working environment and organisation culture, awareness on sexual harassment should be linked to discussions to other interconnected issues such gender diversity at workplace and lack of colleague support against sexual harassment.

This requires proactive understanding and approach on part of the employer.  Precursory to an awareness session on sexual harassment would be sessions on gender sensitivity, gender diversity and workplace civility. Bystander intervention with regard to sexual harassment would be a derivative.  Together this will result in a holistic prevention campaign against sexual harassment. Sessions on gender sensitivity and civil behaviour would target gender biases, discrimination and sexism at work while civility awareness will uphold workplace norms on decorum and appropriate behaviour.  Through sessions on bystander intervention employees can be empowered to recognise potentially offensive behaviours that may lead to serious incidents of sexual harassment, motivating them for stopping them and report them to the IC. Such sessions will help reducing apathy and indifference that is usually experienced by persons who face sexual harassment and towards the issue because it will prompt employees to act on time in support of other employees.

It is important that instances of sexual harassment are nipped in the bud. If there a discomforting behaviour from anyone, it is crucial to convey displeasure. If the behaviour repeats or continues it is important to report the same in writing to the IC or HR. Gathering facts such as date, time, details of each incident, saved messages, and recorded conversation, informing friends at work or colleagues witnessing emotional distress of the affected person about the problem will be helpful. If the IC or HR has not initiated action in time one can choose to reach out to external agencies such as police, State or National Commission for Women or women’s organisations.

It is a norm to say that all of us must continue to work towards making workplaces free from sexual harassment. It is only when we commit ourselves wholeheartedly that we will move towards achieving the goal of gender equality. The Act is almost four years old and therefore it is time for employers to move a step ahead. Progress should be from mere compliance to best practices to prevent and minimize instances of sexual harassment. This is possible only when the employers do not cost cut, rather display their unflinching support and thrust on prevention and resolution of sexual harassment.

By- Dr Anagha Sarpotdar
Dr Anagha Sarpotdar is working as consultant, external members for Internal Committee (IC) – POSH on social and legal aspects of sexual harassment at workplace since 2005. She is PhD in Social Sciences from Tata Institute of Social Sciences-Mumbai.

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