Trainings and regular skill building workshops are imperative to handle anti-harassment issues and the impact of such awareness sessions need to percolate down to the grass-root level
Companies need to therefore work to leverage the power of enforcement, instil a sense of reverence for law and adopt best practices to build a positive environment for all its employees
Today, our work environment has reached a new frontier and women are increasingly taking on larger roles in the corporate realm. India has been a welcoming nation in terms of growth and inclusiveness, and this has been substantiated by the Indian census that the female work participation doubled from 1971 to 2011 (from 12.1 per cent to 25.5 per cent). The spike in female employment has contributed significantly in boosting the balanced work dynamic representative of a developed nation, coupled with the changing dynamics of the number of men and women working together in offices. However, this changed dynamics has also increased the propensity in occurrences of instances of sexual harassment of women: an infamous (and sometimes ignored) blind spot in work environments.
In the last couple of years, the Government has been instrumental in pushing forward a combative agenda to boost awareness around, and tackle sexual harassment. While this agenda includes addressing the issue holistically, the enactment of the Sexual Harassment of Women at the Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act 2013, has demonstrated the Government’s intent to make corporate India a safe workplace for women employees. This also strives to fuel a positive change in ensuring a more inclusive workplace, with procedures on how to investigate cases and recommend disciplinary action, if needed.
The recent survey report by EY, titled ‘Reining in sexual harassment at the workplace in India’ highlighted the state of affairs when it comes to dealing with cases involving sexual harassment at the workplace. This report laid emphasis on the intricacies and apprehensions that seem to accompany such cases, and was focused on determining the shift underway due to the Government emphasis and regulatory push. The overall sentiment garnered emphasised that the implementation and subsequent change within organizations is taking place – however, at a sluggish pace. One of the key aspects in the report was that while most companies had set-up, or were in the process of setting up Internal Complaints Committees (ICC), about 40 per cent of the survey respondents stated that they were yet to train the members of the committee, although the Act lays down the training to be compulsory. Moreover, 35 per cent of respondents claimed to be unaware of the penal clause for non-compliance with laws relating to how an ICC should be constituted. This could be a serious problem for companies because according to the Act, they can face monetary penalties, leading to cancellation of business license for subsequent offences. In addition, there can be a damaging impact on the reputation of the entity.
Trainings and regular skill building workshops are imperative to handling anti-harassment issues effectively. The impact of these awareness sessions needs to percolate down to the grass-root level (junior-most employee or contractor) and ensure swift and timely action by the ICC. This will enable driving the employers’ initiative to deter improper behaviour and set the right tone at the top.
The role of the ICC is a powerful one, as they are true custodians of the Act. But an untrained or unaware ICC member can potentially do more harm than good. Most of these employees would have other primary roles in the company and may not have been exposed to the process of enquiry; some employees may also become judgmental or have pre-conceived notions. Therefore, training them to handle complaints in line with the process laid down by the law, keeping the organization’s risk in mind along with a fair amount of sensitivity of the issue would ensure both an inclusive work culture and reduce the chances of litigation and reputation damage.
Industry reports suggest that India’s fast increasing workforce is also getting younger. This means that the likelihood of social interaction at the workplace is bound to rise. The informal nature of discussions could become volatile if conversations turn inappropriate. The EY survey stated that 21 per cent of the respondent organizations did not have general awareness campaigns aimed at their employees. Moreover, 44 per cent stated that their organizations did not display the penal consequences of sexual harassments at prominent locations. Low awareness and understanding about what constitutes sexual harassment is critical because many incidents tend to be based on perceptions. These may be seen contrarily by both individuals in question (men and women) arising out of varied factors.
Leading companies have already laid the foundation of strong anti-harassment frameworks through a zero tolerance attitude. It is also not uncommon to see companies taking proper steps to ensure non-retaliation and taking strict action to address frivolous and malicious complaints. The findings revealed that 12 per cent of the respondents were of the opinion that malicious complaints increase after appraisals, while 50 per cent of the respondents were unclear about the genuineness of the complaints received after assessment of the performance of employees. The role of management is critical for a positive implementation and enforcement of these programs as it can make or break the intent of the ICC. At the end of the day, the ICC is an independent quasi-judicial body and possesses the rights of a civil court under the Code of Civil Procedure, 1908.
Companies need to therefore work to leverage the power of enforcement, instil a sense of reverence for law and adopt best practices to build a positive environment for all its employees.