Tricky Office Romances, POSH and All Things In-between
Lately, one of the most trending topics among HR professionals is sexual harassment in the workplace. Though cases of sexual misconduct are not new in the office, the issue has been considered a serious offence only in the last few years, since the Supreme Court’s landmark judgment in 2013 laying down specific guidelines, directing employers to have a policy in place for sexual harassment.
Thanks to the #MeToo wave in recent times, more and more women have mustered the courage to speak up and get justice. Yet, sexual harassment is a huge grey area in the workplace, leaving employers in a quandary, employees (especially men) with a lot of doubt, resentment and underlying fear.
Prevention of Sexual Harassment (POSH) at the workplace outlines that sexual harassment includes any one or more of the acts or behaviour: Physical contact and advances, a demand or request for sexual favours, making sexually coloured remarks, showing pornography, any other unwelcome physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of sexual nature.
Further, the law covers a wide range of actions, behavior or gestures which can make a woman uncomfortable or creates a hostile work environment for her and undermines her potential to work and perform well at the workplace. It also goes to the extent of elaborating that sexual harassment, when encountered at work, at events relating to work, among people sharing the same workplace or between colleagues outside of work, can be considered a violation.
Though a wide range of offenses that can come within its ambit, in my experience, there is still ambiguity surrounding what sexual harassment means at the ground level.
Also, I have seen that once it is reported, it can be extremely challenging to establish a sexual harassment allegation because of the very nature, and the availability of evidence.
Several high profile cases have been reported in the media, like that of Binny Bansal, the co-founder of e-commerce giant Flipkart, who had an unceremonious exit from the company after its new owner Walmart investigated alleged personal misconduct. Or that of media mogul, and a Member of Parliament MJ Akbar who was accused by several people of sexual misconduct, marking even the Central government in the #MeToo scandals. The list of offenders is endless but is just the tip of the iceberg. And it is only going to grow.
Sometimes, the aggrieved party may also leave or may be transferred. All this is entirely dependent on the power dynamics in the organisation.
As reported in the Times of India, a former Tata Group executive recently alleged that the conglomerate did not hear her pleas against sexual harassment she faced at the hands of a CEO of a group firm. She said after she raised the issue with the Taj board members, Tata Group executive council members and the chairman, and in response, she was offered “a mediocre role in a Tata Sons back office” with no assurance of any career prospects. Disheartened, she quit.
It can be noted that in very few of the publicised cases it is clear whether the offence was committed, whether the aggrieved party was making genuine claims, or if there were any other issues involved as far as the investigations were concerned.
Also, the overall number of cases of sexual harassment at work has more than doubled or tripled in the last few years. While I find that some of the complaints can be motivated with some other underlying reason, some of the complaints may be a result of a consensual relationship gone sour.
In my experience, consensual relationships in the workplace are especially tricky to handle under POSH for several companies, and here are some of the ways in which you can tackle these types of cases.
As an employer, therefore, it is imperative for every organisation to create more awareness about what constitutes sexual harassment gather knowledge about the various things that constitute sexual harassment and the various penalties associated with it.
Often the cases of sexual harassment are to do with power dynamics. If there is a relationship between an executive and their subordinate, then there straight away arises a conflict of interest, not in the letter of the policy, but in the spirit of the policy itself. These relationships can have a direct impact on the performance reviews and appraisals of the employee as well.
While on one side there are concerns about safeguarding the reputation of the company, we have to keep in mind the rights of the employees as well.
While the law makes it mandatory for an organisation to have a policy in place, the responsibility to prepare employees to seek the benefits of the policy is left to the company itself.
Watching for early signs or taking preventive measures by educating employees, especially the senior management and the leadership team on what constitutes sexual harassment and what should employees do to prevent it. This is a good starting point. I also highly recommend conducting periodical sensitisation workshops with employees.
Another very relevant point to draft into the company’s POSH policy is the disclosure of consensual relationships. This can be done by encouraging team members to report their relationships in strict confidence, to enable the HR department to protect their rights as well as the company reputation.
This is especially applicable in the case of consensual relationships, which is a huge grey area for companies. Preventive measures can be taken to ensure that the reporting structure is changed in a manner acceptable to all parties. While this is an ideal situation, the reality is that most employees would not be comfortable revealing their personal affairs to the company. However, in case it comes to light, team leader and the HR often make enquiries, investigations, and take the necessary action anyway to maintain the company image. Making the shift in mindset will be difficult, but I am certain it has to be done with sensitisation to the issue and changing times.
Often, the alleged offender claims that they are simply not aware that their behaviour constitutes sexual harassment. Again, if the employer makes regular attempts to sensitise its employees to the definitions of sexual harassment and the norms of acceptable and unacceptable behaviour, several situations can be avoided.
The employee feels confused and is unsure of what repercussions it may have on his career, whether found innocent or guilty. Therefore, it will greatly help if he is clear on the definition of the nature of sexual harassment itself, and is generally made aware of his office environment, and keeps in mind that every person has a different benchmark to what they find acceptable and what they don’t.
If a woman conveys that something is not acceptable to her, it should raise red flags. Even in the case of a consensual relationship where, it was once ok, if one of the parties has a change of mind, it has to be respected. A no means no – and this is a blanket rule for all cases of sexual misconduct. With this in mind, any employee should be in a better position to avoid faux pas.
Aggrieved party’s point of view:
The problem with sexual harassment at the workplace is that many victims ignore it or play it down, hoping it was a one-off incident, and that it will not recur. Women also need to be aware of what constitutes sexual harassment. While the #MeToo movement has given women a voice and platform to draw attention to their unpleasant experiences, women should be clear what they are okay with, and what they are not okay with. This is a very clear boundary for each and every individual, and will never change. Clear communication will save a lot of misery. Also, knowing one’s rights includes not misusing the power to punish someone, or be vindictive to them. This is especially true of consensual relationships where what may have been acceptable earlier may not be acceptable today.
As in the case of any type of relationship, office romances also fall in a grey area. The law explicitly states that sexual harassment can be encountered at work; events relating to work, among people sharing the same workplace or between colleagues outside of work – all of these can be considered a violation and can be reported to the Internal Complaints Committee (ICC), which has to take the investigation seriously.
A recent case reported in the Times of India that comes to mind is a Mumbai-based BPO employee who complained that she was raped by a senior colleague after he spiked her drink at an office party. She was forced to file a non-cognisable offence with the local police, the case was brought to the notice of Navi Mumbai police commissioner who registered the rape complaint and escalated it to the crime branch. The woman reportedly claimed she was too traumatised to return to work at her Andheri BPO. Therefore, though the incident happened outside of office hours, it will very much come under the purview of the ICC that would have had to undertake an investigation into the matter.
The key is to remember that while any relationship is a private affair and should not be subject to moral policing, if it is between work colleagues, it will have consequences for both the employees as well as the organisation. Therefore, we strongly recommend laying out the rules in black and white.
Let us know if this article helped or send in any other questions that you may have. Also 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: Deepam Yogi is an adventurer at heart, socially conscious in her gut and professionally a strategic consultant. She co-founded Yellow Spark to support organisations to build workplaces that people love being a part of. Deepam describes herself as a shy yet opinionated writer and firmly believes that most answers to complex issues lie in simple communication.