Confronting Sexual Harassment in India

Nearly nine in10 female workers have witnessed some form of workplace sexual harassment, according to a survey of IT and BPO employees. And nearly three-quarters of the time, the perpetrator was the victim’s manager or supervisor.

In India, Western companies confront a culture that is often starkly different from that of their home countries.

For example, a number of business-process outsourcing firms with operations there make a practice of sending notes home to the parents of employees in their 20s who behave inappropriately at work, says Brandi Moore, founder and CEO of IndiaThink, a New York-based consulting firm that helps companies navigate the intricacies of doing business in India.

“Families expect to be involved in their children’s work lives to a much greater extent than in the West,” she says. “In India, if an employee’s mother is sick, she’ll tell her boss, who will be expected to offer help of some kind.”

India is also struggling to deal with the changes brought about by more than a decade of rapid economic growth, including the fact that 30 percent of the country’s approximately 2 million IT and business-process outsourcing workers are women, who in some cases are earning more in a year than their fathers have earned their entire lives, says Moore — this, in a country where (despite the fact that it was led for 15 years by a woman, the late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi) most women were traditionally expected to be married and raising families by their early 20s.

This accelerated change has led, indirectly, to some unwelcome developments: A recent survey of 600 female employees working at IT and BPO offices in India found that nearly nine in 10 (88 percent) have witnessed some form of workplace sexual harassment.

In what it says is a first-of-its-kind survey in India, the Centre for Transforming India, a New Delhi-based nonprofit organization that works to promote change in that country, also found that more than 82 percent of the incidents occurred outside the office and nearly three-quarters (72 percent) of the time, the perpetrator was a manager or supervisor of the victim.

Charlene Solomon, executive vice president of RW3 CultureWizard, a New York-based firm that provides cross-cultural training for 80 Fortune 1000 companies, among others, says none of the firm’s clients with sites in India have indicated that sexual harassment is a serious issue.

Even so, companies with operations in India must remain diligent, she adds.

There’s little history of men and women working together as equals, says Moore. “Work-based friendships between men and women aren’t common in India,” she says. “This is a society that is just now beginning to accept the practice of dating, and only among certain segments of society.”

The culture in India regarding sexual mores is very different from that of most Western countries,” says Solomon. “Public displays of affection between the sexes are frowned on — there’s no kissing in public.”

The social taboos against public displays of sexuality also discourage frank talk about sexual harassment, she adds. “Sexual harassment is the elephant in the room — it’s not below the radar, but people feel it’s inappropriate to talk about it.”

Many employers in India are concerned that publicity about workplace sexual harassment will provoke concern among parents about their daughters’ safety, she says.

India is also a very hierarchical culture and employees — men and women — tend to shy away from confronting their bosses, says Solomon.

“Women in India will not come forward easily [to report harassment] because they do not want to be seen as challenging authority and creating disharmony in the organization,” she says.

One way Western companies may try to prevent sexual harassment in India may be by “over-communicating” their policies, she says.

“It’s better to err on the side of giving too much education on the corporate policies against harassment. And for the male employees holding positions of authority, it’s important to remind them — consistently — that the company will not tolerate sexual harassment by anyone,” Solomon says.

Moore advises companies to hold separate training sessions for men and women on harassment policies.

“Employees are going to be too embarrassed to talk about [the subject] in the presence of the opposite sex,” she says.

And the training itself should be as thorough as possible, she adds: “I would not leave any room for nuance — you need to spell out as clearly as you can what sexual harassment is and how it will be dealt with.”

This is the case at Chicago-based consulting and outsourcing firm Aon Hewitt, which has 8,000 employees at five main locations in India.

“We believe that incidents of harassment are more likely to occur if a company does not clearly articulate and uphold its code of conduct and related policies and lacks a transparent redressal system,” said Shailja Singh, Aon Hewitt’s HR leader for Indian operations, via e-mail.

In addition to conducting regular refresher training and providing its India-based employees with an independent and confidential reporting system called Ethicspoint, Aon Hewitt also provides for female employees who must work late with security-guard escorts to their homes and checks in with them via phone to ensure they’ve arrived safely, said Singh.

The situation regarding females in the workplace is not so different from the way it was in the United States several decades ago, says Moore.

“They’re still struggling with the issue of ‘How do we have professional friendships between opposite sexes? How can men learn to see women as more than mothers or potential mates?’ “

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