How Can Organisations Prevent Sexual Harassment?

Are sexual harassment committees in Indian companies effective? Here is what organizations that want to provide a safe work environment for women need to do.

Are sexual harassment committees in Indian companies effective? Here is what organizations that want to provide a safe work environment for women need to do.

By Jaya Narayan

The brutal rape of Nirbhaya in December 2012 made us realize how unsafe women in India are. This theme has been reinforced by several incidents of assault through the year in public places. The sexual assault incident during the recent Tehelka conference has shifted the concern even closer to the safe haven of our workplaces.

Sexual harassment at the workplace is not a new topic in corporate India. There have been many famous cases fought admirably at the highest Indian courts to  bring justice to the victims. Unfortunately, there are also many incidents that have remained un-voiced.

Sexual harassment (a concept related to but distinct from assault) broadly encompasses any type of unwelcome / unwanted sexual favour sought or a sexual advance. The nature of sexual favour or advance can be visual, verbal or physical. It needs to be reported when the victim perceives the offense to be of a sexual nature. Any of the following statements can be deemed as sexually offensive:

  •  “I can’t promote you if you can’t even socialize with me.”
  • “If you can’t sacrifice things in your personal life, how can you grow?”
  •  “I really like that low-neck top of yours.”

An episode is considered to be sexually offensive by the victim when it is unwelcome / unwanted, Quid Pro Quo (threat or reward in return for the request) and creates a hostile work environment.

I know many organizations that do have a well laid out policy. They may even have constituted a committee as per the Vishaka ‎ guidelines. However what is largely missing is the spirit – the attention and activation to monitor, address and prevent sexual harassment on an ongoing basis.

Here are my recommendations to organizations that have the intention of providing a safe work environment to their employees:

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Make it actionable

There are very clear guidelines laid out for organizations to draft the policy and processes to prevent harassment at the workplace. Ongoing education for employees (old and new) and key role holders is essential for the policy to be readily accessed.

The question is, how can organizations go beyond training and education? Often the missing link is the associated decision making framework. There is a need to articulate the consequences for offenders. The committee on its part would make a recommendation, but what happens next? In my experience, it takes strong management back bone to implement them. Uncomfortable questions that need to be asked are:

Will the decisions be considered more favourably if the offender is a leader in the organization, key account manager or a star performer? What happens if there is a repeat incident for an offender who was left with a warning in the previous one?

Organizations need to find ways to communicate to employees the actions taken  against offenders (of course keeping the names confidential) to set the tone for other wrongdoers.  All these steps demonstrate the intent of bringing a culture that respects safety and wellbeing at the workplace.

Invest in the PSH committee

It is mandatory to have an active committee for Prevention of Sexual Harassment (PSH) at the workplace. Often an organization stops here. The members of the committee are not geared up for facing an actual enquiry. At the outset, it’s important to remember that the members of the committee need to represent credibility and personal qualities such as fairness, ethics and impartiality.

Committee members must be accessible at any time in case of any untoward incident. In addition, it is essential to invest adequate time to train the committee members to sensitively handle an enquiry. They need to comprehend the policy and legal process requirements such as documentation, evidence management and principles of natural justice.

At the end of the training, they should be able to answer questions like:

Can a verbal complaint received via an informal discussion be accepted for initiating an enquiry?

Does ongoing friendship between the victim and offender nullify a sexual harassment complaint?

If the incident has happened outside the office – can it still be considered to be sexual harassment at the workplace?

Does informality in the organizational culture justify sexual harassment?

Does it matter if it is just one incident, there is no character flaw in the history of this manager?

Make the committee accountable

A tough PSH committee is a deterrent to future offenses. The committee must deliberate behind closed doors. The members should be reminded to take their membership with utmost seriousness. They must ensure that they leave their role and impressions about individuals outside the door. Even if the offender is their own team member they need to make sure that their subjective experience outside the room does not clutter the fact of the case. Each member of the committee must be watchful of the safety of the victim / witness to avoid retaliation. In their role, they can fearlessly question the highest level in the organization on the status of recommended actions. In case there is a consistent violation that is observed in taking the committee’s recommendation forward, they can reach out to the legal counsel for support. The committee also needs to make ongoing recommendation to prevent recurrence of such incidents at the workplace. 

I can assure you that none of what has been outlined above is difficult or time consuming. All that is needed is the outlook. I hope that 2014 is a defining year for organizations to focus on actions that can make Indian workplace not only the best place to work but the safest place to be.

“Being good is easy, what is difficult is being just.”
― Victor Hugo

*Photo credit: National Assembly For Wales/Cynulliad Cymru  (Used under the Creative Commons Attribution License.)


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