At first glance it was another one of those routine emails. Anyone on the speaker circuit will tell you they are par for the course. You hand out your visiting cards to those of the audience who walk up to meet you after your panel discussion or session is over. And it’s anybody’s guess how many follow-up mails you may receive.
But this one was different. It was a cry for help from a woman handling amorous advances from her boss. It was a typical case of sexual harassment (SH) at the workplace that goes by the rather explicit term of quid pro quo in SH parlance. She was not toeing the line and felt her job was now on the line. But what caught my attention was her plea. Could I help her? No, not in getting her another job, but in addressing the problem on hand. There was apparently no policy in play and since she was in HR and her boss was the HR head, who could she turn to?
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In the recent past, the issue of sexual harassment at the workplace has engaged our minds quite often. A high-profile case in the US and some much-discussed ones in India have grabbed their share of eyeballs, at least in the print media. And yet why do so many Indian companies still not have a comprehensive anti-sexual harassment policy in place—even the large ones or those with a presence in more litigious societies such as the US?
I am inclined to be charitable and say blissful ignorance is at the heart of this gap in most organizations. But once the ignorance barrier is breached, in both my experience and from hearsay, I believe there are five key mental blocks that CEOs and managements have in implementing a robust anti-sexual harassment policy. So what are they, the 5 Ds as I call them, alliteratively?
“Sexual harassment? No, no. We don’t have that problem. Our employees are just not like that. And we have a very open environment. Any employee can walk into our offices and tell us their concerns. So why have a policy?” This is not just brash, young CEO-speak. I have heard this from some of the wisest leaders. But sexual harassment does take place in organizations when men and women work together. And with more women entering the workplace, it is expected that such instances will increase. Also, unlike other concerns, the stigma attached to sexual harassment makes it tougher for victims to raise the issue, however open the company culture might be.
“Yes, there may be some isolated cases. But what the hell? We have more important things to worry about. I don’t want key management time going in addressing these issues. These are all Western concepts. Let’s not obsess about this.” This to my mind is the most dangerous block. Because here leadership acknowledges the problem but does not think it is important enough to be on the management agenda. Unfortunately, it is. Ensuring a safe and harmonious workplace is the responsibility of every employer. It is also important to protect the corporation from the risks that the absence of such a policy exposes it to, especially when operating in countries that take such policies very seriously. Any breach here and the problem does not just remain an HR issue; with multi-million-dollar suits, it can affect the bottom line.
“We have an employee code of conduct. That will handle this. Why do we need another policy to address this?” A generic code of conduct, while useful in addressing most misconduct problems, may not address the requirements of this specific concern. Sexual harassment is a very delicate issue. The crime, except at its most heinous, is shrouded in shades of grey. Even if embedded in a code of conduct policy, it requires a clear definition, persevering dissemination even to surface the issue, sensitive handling, mature investigation through trained personnel and empathetic implementation of recommendations.
“There is no need for a separate committee or policy for this. Our HR is well–equipped to handle it. After all, this is just an employee concern and that HR handles very efficiently.” This argument is also well deployed when senior leadership is rather embarrassed about handling the whole issue and delegation to HR is convenient. But HR as the sole custodian is a suboptimal solution. It is best if these grievances are handled by an independent committee with even third-party representation, as articulated by the Supreme Court in the Vishaka guidelines, “to prevent the possibility of any undue pressure or influence from senior levels”. (The court defined sexual harassment in 1997 and stated that the guidelines would have the effect of law.) In my view, this particular proviso is actually a global benchmark for the objectivity it brings in; and something all companies should heartily embrace.
“No policy please. It will be used by manipulative employees to harass male bosses. Especially those who are strict with them. No, no, we don’t need this. Our managers will then be very worried about employing women and managing them efficiently.” Of course, misuse is worrying. But great companies are aware of this and ensure that the system is equipped to handle such eventualities, including very strong actions for malafide or malicious complaints.
If any of these excuses sound familiar, worry not. You or your organization is not in the minority. There are many who have wrestled with the same issues. But also, many successful leaders have crested these blocks to craft, institutionalize and implement simple yet elegant harassment-free workplace policies. This, however, requires strong management will and visible leadership sponsorship from the corner office.
And remember, ignorance is bliss, but oh so dangerous!
Hema Ravichandar is a strategic human resources consultant. She also serves as an independent director and an advisory board member for several organizations.
Write to Hema at firstname.lastname@example.org