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Business News/ Opinion / Cubiclenama | Sexual harassment: Don’t trust the office
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Cubiclenama | Sexual harassment: Don’t trust the office

When have we ever seen an industry or an organization consistently self-regulate itself with any competence?

The one way to force organizations to self-police well is to provide a legal backstop to the victims. The organization must know that if it doesn’t take the complaint seriously, the employee can sue both the perpetrator and the organization. Photo: MintPremium
The one way to force organizations to self-police well is to provide a legal backstop to the victims. The organization must know that if it doesn’t take the complaint seriously, the employee can sue both the perpetrator and the organization. Photo: Mint

Like many of you, I have been thinking about the scourge of sexual harassment in the workplace. Not that this terrible plague did not exist before this latest Tehelka imbroglio. But rarely has it consumed my social ecosystem so thoroughly and with such intensity of emotions.

It is a topic I have often thought of discussing in these columns. Many times I have come close to writing about it. But then I always drop the idea because I simply have no locus to write about it in a serious way, leave alone with any frivolity.

I have never faced sexual harassment in the workplace. And I have never committed it as far as I know. I was once asked to comfort a devastated female colleague who had been assaulted by a male superior—presumably because I was a jolly type who nobody took seriously but could spout stupid puns at will—and shortly afterwards the perpetrator was fired. (At the time I thought this was an obvious thing to do with such brutes. Apparently not.)

Now I am not going to repeat here threads of analysis that other more vastly experienced writers have already done or will do shortly. The legal aspects of the case, in particular, are well outside the competencies of this column.

But there is one thing I can tell you that somewhat fits within our remit. And that is this:

Don’t trust your employer. Please, for the love of your respective deity, do not depend on your organization to do the right thing in situations like this.

Over the last few hours, I have seen many people talk and write of Vishakha guidelines, Vishakha committees, and sexual harassment grievance cells in organizations. Many of you seem to put great stock in the effectiveness of these regulations and self-regulatory bodies within organizations.

This is all very nice in theory. But in reality organizations—by which I mean the people who work in them and realize these policies—have very little incentive to implement these regulations with any sanctity.

First of all, let us not forget that employee welfare is not the prime motive of most organizations. As far as employees are concerned, most organizations aim to maintain the minimum welfare required to meet business objectives. Anything more than the minimum is usually a bonus, and this largesse rarely lasts beyond one troublesome business cycle or one change of chief executive.

So if a company has to choose between firing a very senior executive with revenue responsibilities, and placating an underling who has just been violated, I personally have very little faith in the ability of most companies to do the right thing.

Second, a large part of this kind of self-regulation depends on co-workers backing up complaints and standing up to seniors on behalf of the victims: Yet another hurdle in many cultures which are not comfortable with conflict or defying authority. In fact, some studies have shown that victims themselves prefer to settle complaints privately instead of taking it public and being termed a “boat rocker" or a “traitor" by other employees.

Third, where is the disincentive for the assaulters? Time and time again we have seen senior managers who have been fired for harassment re-emerge, nary a month later, in senior positions in other firms.

Harass a woman on the street and you go to jail. Harass a co-worker and you get two awkward meetings or even a new job. How is any of this fair or just?

But the most damning thing about all these committees and grievance cells is this: when have we ever seen an industry or an organization consistently self-regulate itself with any competence? Especially, when it comes to non-compliance with internal policies?

Not very often.

The one way to force organizations to self-police well is to provide a legal backstop to the victims. The organization must know that if it doesn’t take the complaint seriously, the employee can sue both the perpetrator and the organization. The employee must know that the courts will protect his or her rights if the organization refuses to.

And that is where this narrative, unfortunately, comes to a screeching halt. As long as we have a decrepit law and order system—no stranger to harassment itself we have learnt—with its labyrinthine ways and intimidating means all these Vishakha committees and grievance cells and inquiry commissions will amount to nothing more than enlightened self-delusion.

In fact, now that I think about it, all these policies may only help to make justice and punishment even harder to obtain. They may well end up protecting perpetrators whilst giving us the entirely fake notion that justice is being done.

My point is not that organizations themselves are somehow immoral or criminal. They are mostly not. But neither are they well incentivized, equipped or trained to always safeguard the rights of their employees. They are welcome to try. But they will often fail.

What then?

Cubiclenama takes a weekly look at pleasures and perils of corporate life. Your comments are welcome at cubiclenama@livemint.com. To read Sidin Vadukut’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/cubiclenama-

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Published: 22 Nov 2013, 03:45 PM IST
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