Making offices safer8 min read . Updated: 20 Mar 2016, 04:28 PM IST
Here's a 13-step guide to implementing the sexual harassment (prevention) Act effectively in your organization
It has become a sort of tradition for me. Every year, around International Women’s Day, I write something about diversity and gender. This year too, I’ve done the same, even though one of my young friends and fiercest critics demurred when she read this piece, saying: “Hema, isn’t this too serious? Women’s Day is all about fun, the ‘joie de vivre’ of being a woman and the ra ra to get women power all charged up."
But that is exactly my point. In the fun of the celebrations, do organizations fail to deliberate on some of the more serious issues that they need to address to create a safe and harmonious environment for all employees, and, more importantly, a level playing field for everyone?
Harassment at the workplace is one such key issue. The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, got the assent of the President on 23 April 2013 and came into force on 9 December that year. This statute superseded the Vishakha Guidelines for prevention of sexual harassment promulgated by the Supreme Court in 1997. The Act clearly defines the duties of the employer, the process and the methodology to be followed in case of a complaint of sexual harassment, and mandates the formation of an internal complaints committee (ICC) to look into sexual harassment complaints. Though enforcement has improved organizational compliance, studies such as Fostering Safe Workplaces, a November report by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (Ficci) and Ernst and Young (EY), say that 36% of Indian companies and 25% of multinational corporations in India are still not compliant with the Act. While this might improve progressively, the challenge that organizations face currently is implementation of the policy not just in letter but also in spirit—compliance, and a respectful culture that prevents sexual harassment.
Here are some pointers to ensure that the law can help in making the office a safer place.
Count contract employees too
As principal employers, organizations also have the responsibility of embracing the larger ecosystem and ensuring that contract employees who work on their premises and are part of their extended team are covered equally and fairly through policies. Vendor partners should be made to comply with the Act. Including the necessary clauses in vendor contracts is a first step in ensuring this.
At the heart of a robust policy is communication. Every employee should understand the need to maintain a positive work environment through professional behaviour. In addition to the law, communication to all new hires during induction, periodic and refresher training for all employees is critical. A policy document with the contact details of ICC members should be made available to all those who are covered by the policy.
Communication needs to be customized to address different sets of employees. Managers are the first line of defence in an organization and need to be completely on board with the philosophy of the initiative to prevent sexual harassment. The larger employee base, especially Gen Y and Gen Z, may respond better to innovative forms of communication like gamification and use of digital media. Again, if you sense that there are specific problems or hostile work environment issues that are not bubbling up as complaints, “communication carpet bombing" (targeting all the employees in multiple ways) is a sure-fire way to bring to surface the hidden problems. While good communication kits and presentations are prepared in English, we must include training in the vernacular medium to cover blue-collar and contract workers.
Choose committee carefully
The members of the committee have an important role to play in the implementation of the policy. Their personal credibility, and the respect they command in the organization, will reflect directly on the committee’s credibility. Choose them wisely. Articulate their roles and responsibilities clearly to avoid confusion. Seek a non-disclosure agreement from the committee members.
Include outside expert
In choosing the external member too, whether such a person is the designated chair or otherwise, it is important to have someone who has credibility and empathy and is mature enough to handle complaints in an objective way, without either sensationalizing them or dismissing them as frivolous. The external members provide third-party neutrality to the committee. They are also mandated with the responsibility of providing expert advice and guiding the investigating committees when there is a case at hand. It is crucial that the external member commit sufficient time, sometimes even unplanned. Remember, complaints of sexual harassment don’t come with appointments. Of course, it goes without saying that external experts in the committee should be compensated fairly for their time, insights and counsel.
Enable committee members
The investigation councils and members must undergo benchmark training and enablement programmes around policies, processes, confidentiality, empathy, culture and people. Reference guides, mentoring, a database of case studies and patterns are some of the tools that will aid efficient case management and investigation procedures. With the advent of the new Act, organizations must also keep in mind that there is a three-year limit to the functioning of any committee member, including the external member; hence, new members should be inducted periodically to ensure continuity in the process. Also, organizations should facilitate knowledge-sharing among the committee members for seamless functioning.
Listen to all complaints
Complaints or concerns need not be picked up only through the helpline or email ID, or be lodged directly with a committee member. Managers as well as human resource (HR) representatives should be aware that if they get a complaint, they should accept it, speak to the complainant and guide them to the appropriate authorities; never push them away with an “I cannot hear it, please go to the committee" comment. Advise and encourage complaints in the written format. If the aggrieved is unable to personally submit the complaint, a person nominated by the aggrieved can lodge a complaint.
Sometimes, a complainant may say, “I just want to tell you but I don’t want to raise a complaint," regarding a particular incident or situation. This practice should not be encouraged. Once a complaint is received, the organization should reserve the right to take the complaint to closure and support and encourage the aggrieved to participate in the investigation—to speak about it, to register it and to address it. This should be a practice while dealing with contractual staff as well.
Give immediate response
The response time to look into a particular concern is critical. Service-level agreements (SLAs) on timelines for the committee and the process are critical. These are sensitive issues and should be resolved quickly and sensitively. As soon as the complaint is filed, the aggrieved should be spoken to within a couple of hours and any immediate relief possible should be provided—this could include letting the person go on leave, providing medical or counselling aid, separating the parties involved, etc. As the investigation proceeds, it is important to have clear timelines. In cases of high-impact incidents, handling the media, police authorities and family and providing emotional support becomes essential.
Explain to the complainant that the organization can never promise complete confidentiality, but that through the use of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) and sensitization, it would encourage as much discretion as possible. It is a good practice to keep reinforcing to all the participants in an investigation the importance of keeping whatever is discussed completely confidential.
Guard against retaliation
It is of paramount importance that the organization ensure there is no form of retaliation towards the complainant, either overt or covert. Transferring a victim, or suspending the accused without evidence, unless there are extenuating circumstances, should never be resorted to. If the complaint involves a boss-subordinate relationship, ensure that the victim does not get doubly victimized by a role change or transfer which is not in his/her favour. Especially where contractual or vendor employees are concerned, the retaliation could be covert and subtle. Keep a close watch to protect vulnerable employees.
Gender balance a must
It is healthy to have a good gender balance in the team that is investigating the case. This is not only good governance, but also puts both the complainant and the person incriminated at ease when they are being interrogated. The investigating committee should not have as a member the reporting manager or supervisor of either party.
Office of the committee
Resource it with both HR and legal expertise. Make it responsible for providing administrative, policy and legal clarifications to the committee. Preparing documentation relating to the case, filing it confidentially and ensuring that the recommendations of the committee (like deferment of promotions or increments, separation advice, etc.) are brought to the notice of the implementation authorities should be the responsibility of the office of the committee. They must also maintain a database for future reference.
False and malicious complaints
Address swiftly if complaints have just been raised to create mischief or disgrace someone. Some might do this to seek retribution or just as retaliation. In extreme cases, such false accusations have also been concocted to simply seek attention, get sympathy or save oneself from a harsh performance appraisal. In fact, in the Ficci-EY survey, 12% of the respondents stated that the number of malicious complaints increased after appraisals. Such frivolous complaints must be dealt with and the policy must contain consequence management for such complaints.
Leaders must step in
Finally, executive sponsorship for such an initiative is crucial to its success. Leaders should display intent, walk the talk and provide the necessary impetus and focus, given the impact this would have on the culture of the organization. This would demonstrate the organization’s as well as their own commitment to the initiative. A glocal approach, a global philosophy and local law-based implementation, is something that the organization should espouse, and the executive sponsor should strongly communicate.
The organization’s anti-harassment policy and intent should make clear its zero tolerance for discrimination or harassment. It is from this zero tolerance dictum that organizations should strive to create a safe and harmonious work environment for their employees. And although the current Act has as its focus the prevention of sexual harassment against women, the overarching organizational focus should be to create and sustain a positive work environment with gender-neutral policies to cover everyone.
Hema Ravichandar is a strategic human resources consultant. She serves as an independent director and an advisory board member for several organizations. She was formerly the global head of HR for Infosys Ltd.