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As a business owner, setting up guidelines and policies on prevention of sexual harassment can be challenging. Here is an easy primer for people running businesses with say 10-50 employees.
India is home to more than 61,400 startups recognised by the Department for Promotion of Industry and Internal Trade (DPIIT), as per the Economic Survey. A press release by Ministry of Commerce & Industry mentions that in 2020-2021, 5,49,842 jobs were created by startups alone with an average number of 11 employees per startup.
Apart from this there are more than 7.9 million MSME’s. Many have anywhere between 10-49 employees.
Prevention of sexual harassment in the workplace – what does it mean to a small business enterprise. Amidst limited budgets and resources, this compliance requirement sometimes could seem like a burden to most.
But sexual harassment is not only gender-based discrimination but also gender based violence, a deplorable act that comes in the way of constitutional rights, namely, right to life, right liberty. So creating a safe workplace is not only a compliance requirement but also the right thing to do.
When a commercial establishment has more than 10 employees, it falls under the sexual harassment of women at the workplace (prevention, prohibition & redressal) Act 2013 (we will refer to it as the POSH act for ease of reference). It requires employees to be sensitized about POSH, a redressal committee set up (Internal committee or IC), annual returns filed once a year. The objective is to create a safe and respectful working environment for women.
Unfortunately, it throws up some practical challenges for the smaller organizations and startups where resources are limited.
The Internal Committee needs to be headed by a senior woman – Many enterprises struggle here, because forget having a senior woman who can be the the Presiding officer, many companies don’t even have women in their roles!
The Internal Committee needs 4 senior members – If one wonders why “senior” members, its because the IC has the power of a civil court to investigate sexual harassment complaint and hence, we look for experience, exposure and level-headed fair behaviour. In a startup with just 10-15 employees identifying 4 senior members is almost impossible. One must note here that the Founder of an organization cannot be in the Internal committee (they become the “employer”) so that’s one senior member down.
An external member needs to be appointed in the Internal Committee – The good part is there are members from NGOs who are willing to become part of the Internal committee as external members. The downside here is that the POSH Act is silent on many fronts, and Human behaviour is unpredictable, complex so the sexual harassment complaints we receive are rarely straight forward and are very nuanced. The Act is silent on many such nuances, it would have been impossible for the law makers to be able to imagine and include all of them anyways. The need here is to be able to reference back judgements / precedents from the past. Therefore, knowledge, exposure to cases becomes critical to carry out the subject matter expert (SME) role here. I must share here that even after handling hundreds of sexual harassment complaints we have butterflies in our stomach when we receive a complaint. Contours of human behavior can be unfathomable.
Draft an anti-sexual harassment policy, and support it with a more comprehensive set of service rules
Many small organizations are often running on a strict, no flab budgeted operation. The priority would be to spend on infrastructure or sales or paying salaries. Spending on a training session or retaining a POSH SME might seem like a luxury. But it is necessary.
Since the Act has very clearly placed the responsibility of creating a safe workplace on the employer, one must be wary of the possibilities of an appeal. An appeal could be directed to a court of law/ national or state commission for women in the event of:
Such an escalation will have serious consequences including cancelation of business license.
While any business establishment with less than 10 employees can approach the LCC (local compliance committee for resolution) set up in each city by the state government, all other companies with more than 10 employees must figure out a way to be compliant with the POSH Act. In the eyes of the law all are same. Irrespective of the size of the organization or nature of business, justice needs to be done.
When a woman is being sexually harassed in the workspace, none of us can feel safe. It’s an organization you so lovingly created, harassment would be a direct reflection of what kind of organization it has actually become.
Prevention of sexual harassment at the workplace is hence not just a legal requirement but also a moral responsibility.
Without a shred of doubt a safe and respectful environment fosters more productivity, positivity, psychological safety and hence a winning workplace. So creating a zero harassment workplace is a win-win deal for all business owners.
Image source: Josie Stephens on Pexels
Aparna GV is currently the Head of delivery at KelpHR, a HR consulting company specialising in creating safe and inclusive workplaces. She has 16+ years of strategic Human resources experience across industries and a 5 read more...
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