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Business News/ Opinion / Too close for comfort

Too close for comfort

If you are accused of sexual harassment, do not take an aggressive stance. Instead, find out what the company policy says

Be wary of conducting relationships at work.Premium
Be wary of conducting relationships at work.

In a quiet corner of the Shangri-La coffee shop in Mumbai, a senior director of a professional services firm shared an issue that was bothering him. A former female colleague had just sued his employer for wrongful dismissal and had filed a complaint with the police. While the complaint was filed against the owner of the company, the FIR, or first information report, had a paragraph mentioning my guest, citing alleged incidents of harassment and inappropriate behaviour. The charges were not specific, and no incidents had been detailed—till then.

He swore that nothing untoward had ever taken place, with the exception of occasionally explicit language in front of her but not directed at her. His boss believed in him completely and was of the opinion that this charge had been thrown in only to muddy the waters on the wrongful dismissal case, and should be ignored for now. The company lawyer agreed with the owner of the firm.

Should he still be worried?

In a word, yes. Unfortunately, in such cases, the people mentioned are often viewed as “guilty until proven innocent". Charges of sexual harassment are serious, and even if the case seems to be drummed up, the implications can be significant—legally, professionally and personally, with significant fallouts ranging from reputation and job loss to fines and imprisonment. So what should one do if he (or she) is wrongfully accused of harassment?

To start with, take a deep breath, put aside the outrage and anger and seek details. Who complained? On what grounds? What is the nature of the complaint? Were other people present? Is it a formal written complaint? Internal or criminal in nature?

Immediately seek details of the harassment redressal policy within the company. Read the manual; understand the process, who gets involved, how long it takes, and the confidentiality policy. Immediately offer to comply and cooperate. If there is a reporting relationship between the people involved, it may be appropriate to step down temporarily or to change the working arrangement till the issue is resolved. Consider getting legal representation, or at the very least, legal opinion on how to proceed.

In the meanwhile, go through the alleged incidents carefully. Write down your version of events, documenting it in as much detail as possible. List the potential witnesses; gather data, which may include correspondence, telephone records, travel details, etc.

A senior advertising professional I know was able to prove his innocence because his secretary had saved all his airline boarding cards for years—and he was able to demonstrate that he wasn’t even in town when the alleged harassment took place.

Depending on the policy, talk to your boss and the others involved, explain your side. Equally, talk to your family, explain the situation and prepare them, particularly if the news is likely to go public. You are going to need their support and they will need yours. Be prepared for the long haul.

Tempting as it may be to confront your accuser, desist unless you have advice. If you believe that the situation was a genuine misunderstanding, co-opt an authorized facilitator and consider having a conversation—and try and ensure the presence of a neutral third party. Take cognizance of the accuser’s point of view, do not trivialize the issue, and put forth your views in calm, considerate language. Set context and take responsibility for your part in the misunderstanding, being very careful not to appear coercive or threatening. If appropriate, consider apologizing and suggesting ways of avoiding the problem in future. And while the process takes over, focus on getting work done—business as usual.

How can one avoid getting into such a situation to start with?

Given the intensity of our work lives, friendships and increased interactions at work are inevitable. There is an increasing relaxation of structures and hierarchies, and with more women in the workplace, navigating the boundary between inclusivity, friendship and offence is tricky. And apart from sexual harassment, you could cross lines based on gender, race, ethnicity, background, sexual orientation, age—almost anything. Of course, offence has to be taken as well as given.

Advice? Err on the side of caution. Needless to say, be cautious about conducting relationships at work, particularly with direct subordinates. Be respectful of boundaries, even of a casual touch to the elbow. Women, in particular, are extremely sensitive to intent and innuendo. Be sensitive—and do apologize immediately if you feel you may have crossed a line.

For example, if you do happen to use explicit language, ask to be pardoned. Be sensitive to body language or verbal cues which indicate that people are uncomfortable with something you have said or done. Think before you text a colleague late at night—and make sure that the context of your communication is clear. If you must share jokes, risqué or otherwise, consider doing so from your personal email ID to friends, and not to a general work-group list. For potentially difficult conversations, such as when you are giving negative feedback, consider having a human resource (HR) person present, if at all feasible. If you sense that someone is uncomfortable with your interaction or language, ask—and apologize and modify appropriately.

Companies, on their part, would be well advised to be cognizant of the reality and potential risks of harassment. A transparent and clearly written out definition of what constitutes harassment and the redressal process is essential. Also, while most companies do have policies in place, they are often unprepared for the actual conduct of an investigation, or unable to navigate the shades of grey, for example, in a situation where a consensual relationship ends badly. The company should aim to speedily address issues, recognize the differences between harassment, misunderstanding and malice—and protect the rights of both the accuser and the accused.

Many companies have opted for compulsory sensitivity training—not just on harassment, but also on the general areas of gender, sexual orientation, race, etc., for male and female employees. Complainants need to be taken seriously, just as they in turn need to be cognizant of the intent, nuances and fallouts on both sides, should the complaint turn out to be unjustified. The policy should not only cover what happens if the accused is found guilty, but also the consequences if the accused is found innocent or has been wrongly accused.

In the case of my harried guest, things actually got a lot worse before they got better. Charges were specified, the lawyers got involved, and the police showed up to ask questions. As it turns out, the accuser had forged some documentation and misled clients, so the case eventually turned against her—and all the charges were subsequently withdrawn. My guest was a bit shaken, very relieved, but much the wiser for the experience.

Sonal Agrawal is managing partner, Accord India, an executive search firm.

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Published: 14 Apr 2013, 02:57 PM IST
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