Most organizations today are aware of the laws around prevention of sexual harassment and the various mandatory compliances and trainings involved in that. The need for an Internal Committee is also well established. However, no matter how many laws and acts we bring in, change happens when the management buys into it and believes in it. As they say compliance is a mindset, its very important to have a mindset that believes in effective compliance and not just a tick in the box.
We will today touch upon the point of hostile work environment especially in the context of women employees and how it is related to sexual harassment.
Workplace harassment and Sexual Harassment are distinct but in our experience we have seen that these two may occur simultaneously or workplace harassment may also lead to sexual harassment. To start with the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition & Redressal) Act, 2013 (“the Act”) is applicable only to those cases where the complainant is a female employee, also the act of sexual harassment needs to have physical, mental or circumstantial impact on the aggrieved woman. Further, a lot of sexual harassment takes place in subtle forms especially creation of hostile environment and a lot of our effort also goes into segregating issues related to workplace harassment/sexual harassment/relations which initially start as being consensual and later turn hostile towards each other.
While All harassment need not be sexual but all sexual harassment comes from a culture of abuse of power, which unfortunately is also the foundation of workplace harassment.
We recommend that HR and Legal teams of large companies especially Public Limited and Multinational Companies work on codified policies, redressal mechanisms and most importantly preventive steps through trainings at different employee levels which aims at stopping workplace harassment in all forms and shapes.
Secondly, the companies should look into the treatment of women and other vulnerable sections of the workforce in day to day working. It is imperative that these sensitization trainings are done for line managers as well as senior management. In the IT/ Banking and Professional services sector we have seen greater flexibility in working environments enabling women to take up more responsibility. We have always argued that a diverse workforce is a more productive workforce.
Some of our recommendations for reducing the incidents of Workforce harassments and hence by extension incidents of Sexual Harassments are as follows
1. Diversity — The old boys club is crumbling in all aspects of life. Its important that every aspect of the work force has adequate representation reflecting the diversity of society. A just and diverse workforce is the best insurance against institutional bias.
2. Setting up of Redressal mechanisms and including it as a part of the Code of Conduct or Service Rules of the organisation. A proper mechanism will go a long way in ensuring that basic workplace harassment traits do not become institutionalized
3. Communication — The reputational risk for an organization which doesn’t address the issues of workplace and sexual harassment is high. An aggrieved employee is just a social media post away from a PR disaster. Clear communication through a codified policy and compliance process is a must to ensure that employees understand their rights and also the redressal process is completed to the satisfaction of all stakeholders
4. Ethics and Process — In our experience the strongest balance sheets are those of companies with the strongest processes. People are an important asset and there is a need to do the right things and also to be seen to be doing the right things. Processes should be sacrosanct, and all efforts should be made to ensure that these processes are followed at all levels.
As mentioned earlier, workplace harassment and sexual harassment both have their roots in a workplace culture which is closed, toxic and does not provide for individual respect. Organizations remove a lot of the problems when they ensure a clean nontoxic working environment by way of formulating right policies, conducting appropriate trainings and have a clear communication with their workforce.