Since last month, Swetabh Pathak, co-founder of tech start-up Elucidata, has been busy tweaking the internal office POSH (prevention of sexual harassment) policy document. He is also on the lookout for an external member to join the internal complaints committee (ICC), which he intends to set up by next month. Almost 30% of the employees in this company are women. While Pathak is in talks with two potential candidates for the external member position, he says that there is no clear way of finding an “expert" for the position mandated by the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013.

Under POSH, a company should officially write down the names and designations of ICC members in its policy against sexual harassment. The minimum requirement for a committee is four people, of which more than 50% should be women, but a case can be heard by a quorum of three members as long as the presiding officer is present. ICC should have a presiding officer (a senior woman employee), one external member (a third party, who is not attached to the company in any way and is committed to the cause of women or familiar with the issues pertaining to sexual harassment) and other members (employees who the company deems fit for the committee). The lifespan of an ICC is three years, after which new members should be appointed.

Delhi-based human resources (HR) tech start-up Reculta, which hit the 10 member-mark last month, is also in a similar predicament. It needs an external member for ICC and been in talks with a lawyer, well versed with POSH law to set up the committee. “We already have two female members earmarked for the ICC. Give the small team, it’s a very informal environment but we want to make it as professional as possible. People should be aware of what they can and cannot say and do," says co-founder Utsav Bhattacharjee.

Both Pathak and Bhattacharjee acknowledge the #MeToo movement and cases of sexual harassment in new- age companies like TVF (the Viral Fever) having acted as a trigger to hasten the process of implementing a POSH policy and forming ICC. “The stakes keep on getting bigger with every passing day and we don’t want to delay this," says Bhattacharjee.

In the last few months, organizations working in the area of POSH law compliance and offering their services as external committee members, have observed a spike in queries from companies actively seeking out external members to join the company ICC. Anjali Gulati, founder and director of talent solutions company People Konnect, admits that a lot of firms have been reaching out to check for people who can conduct gender sensitization training, get lawyers to relook at their policies and are asking for external member in their committee. “In the last couple of months, the queries for finding external members have increased by about 15%," says Gulati.

The time from enquiry stage to making the decision to hire an external member has come down considerably as well in the last few months. “We have seen an increase in queries for external member by 150%.The feedback (the time taken by companies to take a decision) time is down considerably as well," says Samriti Makkar Midha, partner, POSH at Work, a firm that assists in complying with the law on sexual harassment at workplace.

Midha adds that earlier she would have had a tough time convincing a company with 150 employees to comply with the law but now firms with even 30-40 members are reaching out, wanting to put their ICC in place.

“It doesn’t help that companies don’t know what to look for in external members," says Pallavi Pareek, founder, Ungender, an advisory firm on diversity and inclusion.

Demand from smaller cities

Even if one manages to find an expert in the metros and large cities, finding the right resource is a struggle in smaller cities, says Swarnima (who uses only one name), partner at law firm Trilegal in Bengaluru. As a result, even though the law mandates that ICC members need to be changed every three years, some companies hold on to their external members. HR consultancy firm KelpHR, has seen a five-time increase in queries on training, relooking at POSH policies and demand for external committee member in the last few months.

“Earlier we would get queries from Tier 1 cities, metros and state capitals. Now, queries are coming from smaller towns like Coimbatore, Vadodara, Bhopal, Trivandrum, Cochin. They are asking us if we can help them with compliance, what is required, etc. The #MeToo movement has definitely created awareness and I can see people are taking the POSH law more seriously," says Viji Hari, chief executive officer (CEO) and co-founder, KelpHR, who is an external member on 15 ICCs.

Multiple membership

Since it’s not a full-time position, the external committee members can be in multiple ICCs. “Unfortunately, the law doesn’t set down any maximum requirement or a ceiling. This is a huge problem. It’s almost like the California Gold Rush. There is one IC member, who wanted to be part of our panel, who was on 60 IC committees. How can you do justice when you are sitting on 60 committees? Two or three companies come up with cases, you’re blocked. We didn’t take her in our panel," says Antony Alex, CEO and co-founder, Rainmaker, a consultancy that provides compliance training.

When demand is more than supply, there will be hike in the services offered. Gulati of People Konnect says the fee charged by external members has gone up even to 30,000 an hour. Another model is the retainership, where companies pay the external member on a monthly basis to be on a standby. In such a case, the amount may vary from 7,000 to 15,000.

Besides hunting for external members, companies are also looking at replacing their existing third-party ICC member as they may not be the right fit for the job. A recent judgement by the Delhi high court in Ruchika Singh Chhabra vs M/s AIR France India and Anr. case, asked for reconstitution of ICC based on the external member not having relevant experience in dealing with matters of sexual harassment. “The external committee member was a labour lawyer and the court said the person needs to be committed to the cause of women and there were questions on whether he’s the right candidate to be an external member," says Swarnima of Trilegal.

The spirit of the law

While smaller firms are grappling with getting the right external member on board, for larger organizations, a thorough background search is the key element to ensure they have an expert third-party member.

Shantanu Das, chief HR officer, Amway India, says that while they get references through their industry network, the reference only brings the person to the assessment table. “Some of our existing ICC members and I do evaluation of the credentials along with a structured interview. So, it’s a very detailed assessment process," he says.

Agreeing with him, the Snapdeal spokesperson says companies need to assess before they hire someone as the external member on whether they have actually worked in the field or it’s because they want to ride on this wave.

Member résumé

Look for someone who actually has experience in setting up POSH compliance from start to finish, not someone who draws policy or does training.

Hire a person who has experience in seeing an investigation through and understands everything from the kind of papers needed, to how to conduct one

Look for someone who is not only gender neutral but at the same time understands the workplace culture. You don’t want someone who fires people for the sake of compliance. Spend time with an external member to know if they have any gender biases.

It would be great if that person also understand your industry because every industry works differently.

—Pallavi Pareek, founder, Ungender

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