“Women Worry That They May Be Branded As TroubleMakers” – An HR Manager Talks

This HR Manager candidly discusses the real sexual harassment cases she has seen, and tells us what we can learn from them.

This HR Manager candidly discusses the real sexual harassment cases she has seen, and tells us what we can learn from them. 

The topic of sexual harassment in the workplace is in focus once again after TVF founder Arunabh Kumar and ScoopWhoop Co-Founder Suparn Pandey, were recently accused of the same.

In the recent past, other high profile cases such as those of Tarun Tejpal, former editor of Tehelka and Rajendra Pachauri, ex-TERI chief were also out in the media.

With people spending more time at work than at home, it is natural that social interaction will take place. However, inappropriate and deviant workplace behaviour in the guise of ‘being social’ often leads to cases of sexual harassment.

Why do such cases happen, despite most employees being at least partially aware that it would invite punishment and possible loss of reputation? While the aggrieved can be a male too, in our social set-up most often it is the female who is the complainant.

Why do sexual harassment cases crop up so often?

The following could be some of the reasons for sexual harassment at work, and for why women don’t report it more often:

  • As with all other places, deep-rooted patriarchy is at play at the workplace too. An harasser on the street feels that he can get away with his crime. The same thought process is at play at work too. This feeling is amplified if the perpetrator happens to be in a position of power. It is also possible that he has committed similar acts in the past and has not been brought to book, and hence feels emboldened.
  • ‘Friendly’ behaviour – In today’s work environment, people come from diverse backgrounds and cultures with differing views on acceptable behavior. Organizations place a lot of emphasis on building relationships/networking and hence women sometimes end up putting up with unacceptable behavior so as not to ruffle feathers or be seen as ‘rude’. The desire to fit in may be a reason to endure such behaviour.
  • A large number of cases are reported during off-sites and business travel, often under the influence of alcohol. A person with such tendencies may be restrained at work but given an opportunity outside the workplace and especially when the guards are lowered, self-control may slip. Some organizations have taken a decision to not allow alcohol at off-sites and parties. While such decisions are seen as too ‘motherly’, organizations often need to take unpopular decisions in view of past occurrences.
  • The corporate world is fairly well connected and word does get around. Women are concerned that if they get branded as ‘trouble makers’, future job prospects may be affected too. This fact may also compel them to keep quiet. While management takes all efforts to keep these cases confidential, the ground reality is that nothing is ‘confidential’ in organizations.
  • There are some manipulative men out there who may take advantage of personal information that is shared with them in good faith and play the role of the comforting shoulder. The ultimate intent could be to take sexual advantage, being fully aware of the vulnerabilities. This is not to say that we should mistrust everyone out there but we need to exercise good judgment in what to share and with whom to share.

Real sexual harassment cases I have seen

Most cases are quite complex with several factors at play at the same time. Below are two real cases (with names changed to protect their identity).

Anita was facing issues with her non-performance at work. She was put on a performance improvement plan and was being mentored by the Head. A senior manager, Arun joined the organization. He was considered a high potential hire who was extremely polite, respectful and articulate. The Head delegated the responsibility of mentoring Anita to Arun.

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During their discussions, Anita shared some personal information with Arun. Arun invited Anita for dinner one day to discuss her work progress. During dinner, he started drinking excessively and insisted that she stay late and he would drop her home. His behavior was flirtatious and he also held her hand trying to stop her from leaving.

Anita was alarmed and felt uncomfortable. She managed to leave and reported this matter at work. During the investigation, it was found that Arun was guilty. He had also lied about not consuming liquor while the evidence proved otherwise. Arun was asked to resign and leave. It was a stressful and time consuming case for the Sexual Harassment Committee. During the investigation, we realized that he had made another woman manager uncomfortable by asking her very personal questions.

In another case, during an international business travel, an employee was sexually harassed at a company event by the Head of the department, a fairly senior person in the organization. She left the event in tears and there were several witnesses to this. The Head of the department was fired after a lengthy investigation. As they were in the same team, he was asked to be on leave for some time and attend office only when asked.

There are several lessons learnt from such cases. It is responsibility of the management to ensure well-being of employees and to provide a safe and conducive work environment for everyone. There should be regular sessions conducted on acceptable behaviour at work and on the provisions of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013. Case studies should be shared to increase awareness.

There is a compelling need to prevent such behavior from an organization viewpoint. There is immense mental agony for the aggrieved employee, huge loss of productivity, hiring and training costs of replacing fired staff and possible loss of reputation on account of lawsuits.

Investing in prevention of harassment is not merely a good corporate or ethical practice but there is strong business sense in it too.

Top image via Pixabay

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