Show some respect
During the early part of my career, I worked in an Indian conglomerate where the sales head—a sharp-talking rising star—was nicknamed “Handsy” because he was in the habit of touching women inappropriately. Two decades down, the way we work may have changed, but some things haven’t. The rallying cry of #MeToo, included in over 1.7 million tweets across 85 countries as of 24 October (data released by Twitter), brought home the sobering truth that generations of women have similar stories to share.
In India, the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, was hailed as groundbreaking legislation as it holds employers accountable for preventing and dealing with harassment. Broadly, organizations are now expected to draft a company policy on sexual harassment, set up and train an internal committee (plus an external member) to investigate complaints, arrange a training programme explaining employee rights and submit an annual report to the deputy labour commissioner featuring the number and status of cases filed.
The data, however, offers yet another reality check. The disclosures made in the annual reports by blue-chip companies forming part of the benchmark Sensex, show that the number of sexual harassment complaints rose at most companies. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. “An increase in the number of reported cases on sexual harassment is an indication that employees trust the company’s process to address their concerns,” says Richard Lobo, executive vice-president and human resources head, Infosys.
What’s of concern is that these numbers may not be giving us the true picture. Nirmala Menon, founder and chief executive officer of Interweave Consulting, a diversity and inclusion training firm, says, “Many cases continue to go unreported even today because of the stigma associated with sexual harassment.” A 2016 survey by the Indian National Bar Association attests to this. It revealed that 69% of women never complain or report sexual harassment. Even in companies that are compliant, and where employees are encouraged to take action, women often refuse out of fear of losing their jobs and reputation, and retaliation.
Settling for an apology
The law mandates that companies with 10 or more employees need to be compliant or face severe penalties. So, an increasing number of organizations are putting processes in place. The procedure for seeking help, laid down in the 2013 Act, is very well thought out. So why haven’t we arrived at a point where it’s the perpetrator—and not the person being harassed—who fears reprisal?
One reason could be that the conversation is never about the consequences that offenders can face. While the 1997 Vishaka Guidelines recommended “appropriate disciplinary action”, the 2013 Act that superseded them listed specific punishments such as disciplinary action, withholding of promotions and salary increases, award of compensation and termination of employment. In practice, punishments depend on the degree of offence. With written or verbal apologies at one end of the scale and termination of employment at the other, the penalties in between include no salary increases, downgrade in performance appraisals, etc.
Surprisingly, in many instances, the complainant herself wants to end the matter with an apology by the offender. “I have found that women don’t necessarily want tougher action; they just want the message to be communicated. Often, you will find it is organizations that pursue serious action,” says Mahnaz Shaikh, human resources head—India and Saarc, Godrej Consumer Products Ltd. Internal committees tend to use the conciliation process, which the Act provides for, to arrive at a mutually acceptable solution. “A written apology (which goes into the file of the offender) with a promise to not repeat the act, is the most preferred method and happens frequently,” says Antony Alex, CEO, Rainmaker, a compliance training firm.
Cash settlements are rare in India but termination of employment is more common than you might think. A worrisome trend is that while the offender who has been dismissed is filed away internally as not being hireable, companies do not make a formal disclosure of prior offences in an external reference check. This practice, which is driven by an unspoken rule and not a non-disclosure agreement, may well be compounding the problem of workplace predators. Experts have a more measured view of this, explaining that the sacked employee—in most cases a one-time offender—has already been “punished”, having lost his/her job. “We need to give the offender the benefit of doubt when s/he says, ‘I realize I made a mistake and allow me to correct myself,’” says Menon. Chryslynn D’Costa, head, diversity and inclusion, at consultancy firm Serein, says recommendations for disciplinary action have to focus on correcting behaviour. In these circumstances, how do companies ensure they are not hiring serial offenders? They rely on the industry grapevine to keep them updated.
focusing on education
Severity of punishment is unlikely to discourage harassers since cases are treated as confidential. “How does anyone know what measures have been taken?,” Shaikh asks. To effect real change, experts believe the focus has to be on education.
Naina Kapur, an advocate who was instrumental in the framing of the Vishaka Guidelines, believes that disciplinary action is driven by leadership messaging. “Workplaces must be clear about the culture they seek to create,” she says. At Godrej, the tone has been set from the top, with “show respect” being one of the company’s core values. Employees are schooled in the finer points of consent and respect through a code of conduct manual, and online and face-to-face training programmes that are driven by real-life examples.
At Google India, employees are encouraged to carefully read their well-defined code of conduct. “We ask employees who believe they’ve been bullied or harassed to immediately report the incident. Similarly, supervisors and managers who learn of any such incident must immediately report it to human resources,” says the company spokesperson.
Infosys focuses on educating its workforce through campaigns, emails, contests and posters, etc. A Tata Sons spokesperson reveals that the company conducts regular training modules to build capability and equip internal committee members with the skills to investigate cases, if any.
The message needs to come from the top to be effective. “When I see that my leadership cares about it, I think I should care too. Either because it’s the right thing to do or because I’m scared that if I don’t, I may get into trouble,” D’Costa explains. To accomplish this, companies have to look beyond an annual training programme. “Just like productivity or profit, company culture needs to be part of the daily conversation,” says D’Costa.
From using town hall meetings to talk about the importance of a respectful workplace environment and sharing insights from organizational culture surveys, to simply being more watchful and calling out inappropriate behaviour, companies are adopting good practices .
The definition of what constitutes sexual harassment is wide—it can range from jokes, teasing, indecent photographs, inappropriate touching, even an improper gaze, to molestation and rape. It is important to remember that no offence is too small. “A lot of women question whether they are overreacting. They need to know that these boundaries of what is okay and what isn’t are highly individualistic. So, if something makes you uncomfortable, point it out,” says Shaikh.
It is important to point out that the conversation shouldn’t be directed only at men. Women often lack empathy while dealing with other women in these situations. “I’ve heard women say to other women, ‘what does a comment do, just take it in your stride,’” says Menon. “I’ve also seen women say, ‘I’m going to town with it to make sure they understand they shouldn’t do it.’ Both are extreme reactions.”
Organizations that have built a culture of respect will see offences like sexist comments and overfamiliarity come down because unintentional offenders will catch on. These “old dinosaurs learning new ways”—as Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein was described by his lawyer Lisa Bloom—can be found walking the corporate corridors too. “There’s a huge gap in understanding what is appropriate and what isn’t,” D’Costa says. Region, language and age play a big role. “A senior manager once told me that young girls like to be complimented and that’s how he gets his work done. I said to him, ‘You’re lucky that nobody has raised a complaint, because when one person does, more can come forward.’ We’ve seen that trend today,” Menon says.
Social media has levelled the playing field. Some believe it has made companies wary about “sitting on complaints for too long”, others say this has opened up the conversation. “Talking about sexual harassment has become less of a taboo in the public realm now. The recent social media support for women on this aspect showcased the move towards openness and getting help as well,” says Lobo.
It’s a long road ahead, but D’Costa is optimistic that Indian companies will go the distance. In fact, she says, they already are. Some of them are, for instance, organizing advanced workshops on ways to deal with possible situations, paying for complainants’ counselling sessions, even conducting investigations offsite to maintain confidentiality. Some have stopped working with a client if their employee/s have misbehaved.
“You don’t hear the good stories of companies doing everything in their power to ensure employees are safe because it’s confidential information,” says D’Costa.