Eighty eight per cent of women have faced some form of sexual harassment at work, claims a 2010 survey of 600 female employees in India’s BPO/KPO industry by the Centre for Transforming India. If this statistic is not enough, here’s more—91 per cent of these women did not report the crime for the fear of being victimised. Due to the stigma attached to harassment, especially in a patriarchal society as ours, such issues are usually swept under the carpet. Hopefully, things will change. Following the passing of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Bill in April 2013, and the now infamous Phaneesh Murthy incident, the issue has caught public attention, thanks to the media coverage it has been getting.
The new Bill is based on the Vishaka Guidelines of 1997, the earlier framework used to craft sexual harassment policy. Fortunately, the Bill strides ahead of those guidelines. “While the Vishaka Guidelines, too, for the most part had required similar measures, most organisations found the subject too sensitive to be raised at work and did the bare minimum to stay compliant. They just created policies which were then quietly put on their intranet or in employee handbooks. Building proactive awareness to what it means and how a victim could raise a complaint etc. were rarely communicated,” says Nirmala Menon, founder, Interweave Consulting, a firm that works exclusively on diversity management and inclusion in corporates. With the new Bill, a clearly-formulated policy alone is not enough. It needs to be supported with proactive preventive measures. “The best thing companies can do is educate their employees about sexual harassment,” she adds.
This becomes especially important in India where most people understand sexual harassment as only physical. The verbal (in the form of inappropriate comments or sexual innuendos) or non-verbal forms (such as rude gestures) are often not recognised as most victims think they can raise a complaint only if they’ve been subjected to “tangible” behaviour.
In fact, in her report, Sexual Harassment in the Workplace: Experiences of Women in the Health sector, Paramita Chaudhuri of NGO Sanhita, finds that most women don’t see verbal harassment as sexual harassment. It’s so pervasive as a form of sexual harassment in India that most women see it as a way of life.
Needless to say, the majority of harassment crimes aren’t overt; most occur in the nuanced and layered versions of sexual innuendos, jokes and gestures. Therefore, building awareness and sensitivity around the subject is critical in helping organisations prevent it effectively, Menon asserts. “This knowledge is especially important for senior leadership as they carry a lot of liability—towards themselves, the people working for them as well as the organisation, and any indiscretion or misdemeanour can have legal consequences as is evident from the recent iGate case,” she comments. Precautionary measures such as training sessions, workshops and campaigns to create awareness will help an organisation mitigate its own liability.
Synechron, a New York-based technology consulting firm with an offshore centre in Pune, shows videos and presentations to its employees during the induction process to educate them about the company’s sexual harassment policies, the preventive measures it advocates, and the redressal framework it follows. This module is a key part of the induction process, and insures Synechron against employees feigning ignorance—a typical situation in most companies—to what is acceptable and expected out of them. Added to that, they hold a workshop every year for managers and senior management to discuss this issue, and hold an annual Women Open House for female employees to express their grievances, if any, says Milind Mutalik, senior director, human resources.
As per the new Act, all establishments having 10 employees or more are required to have a formally constituted Internal Complaints Committee (ICC). For organisations with less than 10 employees, and individuals in the unorganised sector, complaints are to be redressed by Local Complaints Committees to be set up by the government in every district. “Personally, I am not certain if the government is geared at this time to provide sufficiently trained people to deal with such cases at every district. The chosen committee members will need to deal with complex cases and take fair and quick decisions. Whether we have enough such people to be part of the Local Complaints Committees is something to think about,” Menon says.
While the new statute is a much awaited and welcome development, it brings with it several ambiguities and practical difficulties. For instance, the law imposes an obligation on the employer to constitute an ICC at every office with at least 10 employees— this is a practical concern in organisations with few women employees or if the organisation has multiple branches in the same city, asserts Veena Gopalakrishnan, senior member at the law firm, Nishith Desai Associates.
“Another cause of concern is the employer’s statutory obligation to initiate police action in cases of sexual harassment. While victims have the right to take police action and employers have the duty to support and provide assistance to employees in taking such action, imposing the duty of initiating police action against the alleged perpetrator, irrespective of the seriousness of the offence and even in circumstances where the victim is not willing to take such action, maybe a cause of worry for both employers and employees,” Gopalakrishnan says.
As per the statute, ICC should have at least four members. “This could result in a divided quorum at the time of decision making. The composition of the committee should ideally be an odd number so as to allow decision making based on majority,” suggests Gopalakrishnan.
An important limitation of the Bill is that it isn’t gender neutral. It does not acknowledge that men can also be victims of sexual harassment. However, most progressive organisations cover all their employees irrespective of gender. “Globally, studies suggest about 90 per cent cases are of women being victims while in about 10-11 per cent cases men are victims,” Menon says.
It is imperative to have a zero tolerance policy towards any kind of harassment. Lack of awareness often leads people to underestimate its impact or trivialise it is as harmless “boys will be boys” kind of fun.
Yet, Menon says things are changing. “Frivolous jokes about why we need these workshops has decreased over the years. The various instances of crimes against women in the recent past have built a sense of urgency and empathy to take serious action.” She adds that at the gender workshops her company conducts, there’s been more positive interest and support for the cause from participants across companies.
Creating a Safety Net
The increasing awareness around harassment issues has also led many companies to take that extra step for safety of their female employees. Though this trend had started even before the statute was enacted, it has certainly picked up momentum since then. “At Omega, employees need to take permission if they have to stay beyond office hours. After 8pm, female employees go home only in office cabs. Even if someone from their family comes to fetch them, they are not allowed to join them. Added to that, there is a thumb rule that teams will be constantly shuffled to maintain a healthy gender ratio,” says P.V. Guruvayurappan, vice president, human resources at Omega Healthcare, a Chennai-based healthcare BPO.
At Synechron, all office cabs have a route tracking system and emergency alarms. Also, a lady guard accompanies the employees in the cab especially after 6pm. “More than that, in the office, we have glass cabins and there are no isolated areas. We also had defence training workshops in our office to make our employees feel empowered,” Mutalik informs.
The chances of romantic interests developing at work is high. “Given the long hours required by most jobs, many young people find their spouses at work,” Menon says.
Synechron does not have any specific policy regarding office relationships but there’s an unwritten norm that they do not hire an employee’s spouse, Mutalik says. There are several contrasting examples though. “In our company, we encourage couples to work together and any office romance, as long as it does not affect the organisational decorum, is treated as their personal matter,” Guruvayurappan says.
Needless to say, office romances are a personal affair and not illegal. But, any public display of affection between two people who maybe in a relationship could make the office environment uncomfortable for others and is a potential complaint.
Also, problems usually arise when the relationship is between a manager and her direct reportee. The possibility that it can be perceived as undue favouritism will dilute the integrity of the workplace and lead to a hostile work environment. Besides, if the relationship turns sour, there is a possibility of the subordinate turning around and calling it sexual harassment. In such situations, the subordinate can always claim that she went along with the requests as she feared she would lose her job or suffer some other form of retaliation and the courts would accept that, even if it had been a consensual relationship.