Women’s safety at workplaces: Zero tolerance is the best policy

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Rati Shukla, 23, was an HR executive with a leading retail chain in Chandigarh. Her nightmare started when a CXO-level senior colleague started sending inappropriate text messages to her. Too embarrassed to share it with anybody, and too junior to confront the person, she decided to ignore the messages. But the messages changed into regular calls at odd hours.

Too perturbed, and confused about how to deal with the situation, Rati confided in a colleague. Recalls Rati, “My colleague decided to confront that person. Fortunately for me, I hadn’t deleted his SMSes. She approached him with my SMS records, threatening to file a complaint with the company’s grievance redressal cell. But that fellow left the organisation within a week. It was probably the fear of getting humiliated that made him resign.”

Rati doesn’t work with that organisation anymore. When asked why she didn’t file a formal complaint with the company, she says, “I wasn’t very sure how my complaint would be taken. I confided in that colleague because she was an old employee of the organisation.”

The reality check

In August 1997, five years after another horrific gang rape (the Bhanwari Devi case of 1992), the Supreme Court (SC) issued a judgment defining sexual harassment at the workplace and putting the onus on the employer to put in place mechanisms to curb this menace – this judgment is what has come to be known as the Vishaka Guidelines.

Today, about 15 years later, how much safer are working women from sexual harassment? In July 2012, the NGO Oxfam India released a report titled ‘Sexual Harassment at Workplaces 2011-12’. The study reveals that Shukla’s experience was not at all uncommon.

The Oxfam report says that 17 percent of working women in India have experienced sexual harassment at the workplace. However, many women professionals People Matters spoke to argue that this may not adequately reflect the actual prevalence given that this phenomenon is something most women (as well as companies) are reluctant to report or talk about.

While many large private sector firms such as IBM, Infosys Technologies and Tata Consultancy Services are known for their strict anti-harassment policies, and guidelines for women’s safety, it is the on-ground implementation of the SC’s guidelines across sectors that’s a question mark.

Fear of reprisals

Interestingly, the Oxfam report further mentions that the majority of the women who faced sexual harassment did not initiate any formal action against the perpetrator. A major reason why they did not was fear of losing the job. Others were absence of any complaint redressal mechanism at the workplace, lack of awareness of such mechanisms where they were available, and fear of getting stigmatized.

Pankaj Sharma, Co-founder & Chief Trustee, Centre for Transforming India, believes that for most organisations, tackling sexual harassment at the workplace is not a priority area. He says, “They treat this as an expense head & not as an investment in the workforce. Low levels of engagement, poor reporting, and weak enforcement have resulted in a patchy implementation of the SC guidelines. Moreover, companies fear reputation loss, and so they dissuade a robust and transparent system of reporting & conclusion.”

The nation-wide debates on women’s safety and protection against sexual harassment/violence in the aftermath of the December 16 gang rape incident has led many companies to review their policies and mechanisms pertaining to safety/harassment, as they do not want to be seen as wanting on this count.

A closer look at different industries shows that while policies to protect women against sexual harassment do exist, the implementation isn’t a norm across industries. IT and BPO companies lead the pack when it comes to implementation of strong anti-harassment policies against women and taking safety measures. And they have a solid business imperative to do so, too: According to ASSOCHAM, in 2011-12, 52 per cent of the workforce in the IT industry were women.

Strict action is the only deterrent

Large firms such as Accenture, HCL, Google, IBM and Hewitt have been quite pro-active in ensuring a safe work environment for women. Most such companies have a multi-pronged approach so that women feel confident about approaching the grievance cell when needed. V Laxmikanth, Managing Director of Broadridge Financials, believes that only the implementation of anti-harassment policies will send the right message to employees. He says, “Whenever there is a case of sexual harassment, organisations have to act swiftly and send the right message. We have had a couple of cases in our organisation and we dealt with them very strictly. We have even asked people to go.”

Laxmikanth believes that such steps generate a lot of confidence in its people and are an important factor for employee morale. Besides ensuring safe home-drops for women in case they are working late, Broadridge has a zero tolerance policy against sexual harassment. It has a grievance committee that acts very swiftly in case of any complaint of sexual harassment. Laxmikanth adds, “The moment you announce a zero tolerance policy and people know you are serious about it, it really works.” Most of the companies that have successfully implemented anti-sexual harassment policies have a strong focus on implementation.

Says Nithya Sharma, 27, an HR professional with an IT major based in Bangalore, “Making a policy will not serve any purpose if women do not feel empowered to approach the grievance cell. So we make sure that strict action is taken when there is a complaint. Nobody is spared, not even senior-level employees. It is this heads-must-roll approach that has helped us create an atmosphere of equality within our organisation.” Unfortunately, this level of earnestness is not evident across industries. Larger organisations in sectors such as banking, manufacturing, and retail have realised the gravity of the issue. Many smaller and mid-level firms, across industries, still have a lot to do.

What needs to be done?

Nirmala Menon, Founder and CEO of Interweave Consulting, which helps many companies develop and review women safety-related policies, highlights the lack of a sensitized approach on the part of many organisations. She believes that organisations that do have policies in place do not actively communicate them to their employees. In many organisations, when such cases come to light, they are resolved informally by a forgive-and-forget approach.

It is this approach that is the crux of the problem. While many firms make it a point to talk in detail about the existence of these policies and the grievance redressal mechanisms during the induction process itself, in many others, there is no formal process to inform the employees about such policies. The staff are mostly left to figure it out themselves with the help of the company website.

Geometric Limited, a specialised engineering solutions provider, has adopted a more hands-on approach to this problem. Not only is an overview of these policies provided at the induction stage, they are communicated to the employees — male and female separately — on a quarterly basis through special sessions conducted in each location.
Suggests Sharma, “The key is to develop a robust and transparent reporting mechanism. Secondly, you need peer mentorship programmes so that there is no stigma attached to the reporting of sexual harassment. Security is multi-dimensional and has various aspects across industries. Hence, it also needs to be addressed in multiple ways.”

In the last few years, some leading corporate have started viewing safety for women employees and sexual harassment as one issue. Says Ruchi Srivastava, an HR professional with a multi-national IT company in Pune, “It is necessary to make women employees feel secure. For this, safety and sexual harassment at the workplace cannot be viewed through two different prisms. For female staff, both are two parts of a larger problem. So the policies to tackle both have to be equally stringent.”

Ruchi’s company encourages women employees to take 8am-5pm shifts. If women employees are found staying late in office, their managers are questioned. Of late, the company has also started conducting karate training sessions for women.

Menon sums it up thus, “Earlier, there was a false sense of complacency – a feeling that these problems can’t crop up in my organisation. In my experience, over the last 4-5 years, companies have become more conscious about the issue of sexual harassment and safety of women at the workplace.” The tragedy last December has made more organisations realise that they need to be sensitive as well as alert to this issue and place it at the top of their organisational agenda.

Need enlightened employers:

Verma Committee

While much has been said and done in the past several years about sexual harassment at the workplace, it is evident that this evil is still rampant in Indian society. -Justice JS Verma Commitee Report, January 23, 2013

In the aftermath of the brutal gang rape in Delhi on December 16, 2012, the Justice Verma Committee was constituted to prepare a report on the amendments in criminal law required to fight sexual crimes against women. We present below highlights from the Report pertaining to sexual harassment of women in the workplace.

Role of the employer

While acknowledging the fact that the best solution for preventing incidents of sexual harassment at the workplace is an enlightened employer, the Justice Verma Committee has proposed the elimination of a mandatory Internal Complaints Committee. However, it clarifies that the suggestion should not be read to mean that it wishes to restrict the various optional measures that an employer may take to prevent sexual harassment.

The report states that employers should be free to set up an internal committee, if they so desire. However, a complainant cannot be compelled to approach such an internal committee prior to approaching the proposed Employment Tribunal. Employers are also free to take other measures, such as education programmes within their premises, to further strengthen anti-sexual harassment measures within their establishments.

Liability of the employer

The committee does not wish to visit the employer with liability in all cases of sexual harassment. To this end, it has proposed that the liability of the employer be limited to cases where the employer has: (a) by an act or omission facilitated the specific act of sexual harassment complained of; (b) permitted the creation of an environment at the workplace where acts of sexual harassment have become widespread and systemic; or (c) been found in breach of any other obligation.
No action in the case of False or Malicious Complaints

With regards to Section 14 of the Sexual Harassment of Women at the Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressa) Bill, 2012, which calls for penalizing the woman if she files a false complaint), the committee felt that it was liable to be misused. For instance, the evidence could be manipulated by the employer, or those acting in concert with the employer, so as to falsify the allegations of the aggrieved woman.

Accordingly, it has recommended that the provision be deleted. However, in case of falsification, the aggrieved woman or the witness can be reprimanded.

No requirement that a complaint be made only in writing

For reasons such as illiteracy or lack of education, female workers may not always be in a position to make a complaint about what they may have undergone (which may otherwise be clear in their minds), in writing. The committee has proposed that complainants may be free to approach the Tribunal directly to state a complaint orally, which may then be transcribed into the written form in the manner prescribed by the Tribunal.

On Conciliation

With specific reference to Section 10(1) of the Sexual Harassment Bill 2012, which allows for conciliation in case of a request from the complainant, the committee has made it clear that the Section must be deleted. The committee reasoned that, if allowed, conciliation could be used as an effective tool to muzzle the proposed tribunal’s primary duty to investigate sexual harassment cases.

Read more at:  http://www.peoplematters.in/article/2013/02/04/employee-relations/zero-tolerance-is-the-best-policy/2490

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