Sonali (name changed) often got a drop back home after work from Parag (name changed), who was a part of the management team in her company. Working late hours had become a daily issue, and she felt that it was safer to take a ride back with Parag. The distance from her office to home was a good 15 kms, and the traffic was usually heavy.
At work it all seemed okay… Parag would occasionally ask her to do some of his tasks. His comments, filled with praise for her work, helped her get noticed by the rest of the team. But soon, casual conversations turned personal. Sonali started getting comments on her attire and Parag began patting her casually. Though, she felt a bit uncomfortable at times, she did not want to be perceived as ‘uncool’ or orthodox, and decided not to mention it to anyone.
Then one day, Sonali received a request to travel with him out of town. This completely went against her grain; and she turned down the request from Parag. This upset him. The rides back home reduced drastically. She received unfavourable glances in the office, and was often given tasks just when she was set to leave.
Parag would also yell at her for the slightest mistake. Suddenly there was tremendous pressure on her. Sonali’s actions and performance started being questioned…
All this disturbed her. Initially, she was unable to join the dots…but finally she realized that what she had experienced amounted to sexual harassment at the workplace.
She was confused about the next steps. Should she open up and tell it all? What if it defamed her, and made her seem like the unprofessional one instead? Would anyone even believe her…they would say, she is young and easily vulnerable.
When she asked the HR head how to deal with the matter, she didn’t know either. In fact, she asked her to focus on performance, and not get on the wrong side of management. It was only after consulting a lawyer friend was she able to report the matter and take the necessary action against Parag .
There are many such cases of sexual harassment in companies. As per research, almost 70% of sexual harassment cases don’t get reported. Most companies don’t even have a policy to deal with a sexual harassment incident. The ones that do, need still more training to deal with such cases in a fair and just manner.
What is workplace harassment?
What happened to Sonali can happen to anyone. Any kind of advances made to an employee, male or female that are unsolicitated, unwelcome, have sexual overtones, any requests for favours which involve physical intimacy, physical violence, any other kind of verbal or physical conduct that is sexually coloured…even sharing of sexually explicit messages, and suggestive gestures can amount to sexual harassment. Employees of both genders can face sexual harassment. Also, an employee who is accused of sexual harassment can be of the same gender.
In this context, workplace harassment includes not just the office premises but any locations visited by an employee during the course of work. It could also include the mode of transport used by the employee to and from any premises.
An employee may be subject to sexual harassment from any other employee of the company or from a third party. Likewise, a third party could also be a victim to sexual harassment by an employee of a company.
Early signs of harassment
Those who engage in sexual harassment can seem like regular well-meaning colleagues at work. So how then can one identify sexual harassment in a company? Here are some early signs:
- Unwelcome physical contact such as – touching, pinching, stroking, patting or any other bad touch
- Threatening, dominating or aggressive behaviour
- Sarcastic behavior targeted only toward a particular employee
- Ridiculing an employee
- Repeated rumours about an employee
- Social and/or professional isolation of an employee at the workplace
- Constant insults and unreasonable deadlines assigned to one employee only
- Making personal comments
- Obvious discrimination
- Constantly changing work instructions
- Sharing of sexually explicit messages
How companies can deal with workplace harassment and its legal implications
Any of the above listed behaviours amount to sexual harassment at the workplace. Sexual harassment essentially results in the violation of the fundamental right to ‘gender equality’ and ‘the right to life and liberty’ under Article 15 of the Constitution (which deals with the prohibition of discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, creed or sex).
Whether it’s your colleague or someone from the company management, either way legal recourse can be taken against the offender.
The landmark judgement by the Supreme Court of India in the ‘Vishaka and others vs. State of Rajasthan’ report, lays down clear guidelines that make it mandatory for every employer and other responsible persons to provide a mechanism to redress grievances pertaining to workplace sexual harassment. Each company should also develop a specific policy to combat sexual harassment in the workplace, and enforce the right to the gender equality of working women.
Additionally, the government of India has instated a law from April 23, 2013 titled ‘The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act 2013’ for the prevention of sexual harassment against female employees at the workplace. Any person making unwelcome physical contact, explicit sexual overtures, demanding or requesting sexual favours, making sexually coloured remarks, or showing pornography against the will of a woman shall be guilty of the offence of Sexual Harassment… Section 354A of the Indian Penal Code 1860 prescribes punishment for this offence ranging from simple to rigorous imprisonment, for a term of one year to three years, or with fine, or both.
How to prevent and address sexual harassment in your company
Sexual harassment is a serious matter. Here are some ways to prevent and address sexual harassment issues in your company:
- Create a strong policy and a time-bound implementation process: Do it like you mean it!
- Look for early signs and nip them in the bud
- Encourage employees to say NO in the first instance of any kind of harassment
- Consider having an in-house counsellor to help employees deal with unpleasant inter-personal situations at work
- Have active members as part of the Internal Complaints Committee (ICC)… 50 percent should comprise women
- Include your company’s stand on sexual harassment as part of your training and induction
- Encourage the complainant to give a written complaint, and ask him/her to support it with evidence and witnesses
- Stick to the timelines at the time of implementation
- Develop a whistle blower’s policy to encourage observers and witnesses to report any cases of harassment
- Treat every case very seriously – a matter reported as sexual harassment can never be trivial, even when reported by anonymous sources
- Seek professional legal assistance at the early stages itself
It is every company’s responsibility to have a safe and harassment-free workplace. If a complaint does get filed, it becomes the responsibility of the employer to investigate the matter in all fairness. Reports of sexual harassment at a workplace tarnish the image of not only the complainant and the accused, but of the company and its brand equity. Thus, every company should develop a robust mechanism to prevent and address sexual harassment cases.
If you would like to develop a strong policy to prevent and address matters related to sexual harassment in your company, reach out to us on firstname.lastname@example.org
Author Profile: Aparna Joshi Khandwala is a passionate HR professional. She co-founded Yellow Spark to work with like-minded people who believe in the power of leadership, which is the only differentiator a business has.