Article: Sexual Harassment Workplace Act: Indian corporates still not at ease


Sexual Harassment Workplace Act: Indian corporates still not at ease

In a conversation with Pankaj Sharma, the Chief Trustee at the Center for Transforming India, he talks about the pain points most companies face to address issues pertaining to sexual harassment at workplace even with the new Law in place.
Sexual Harassment Workplace Act: Indian corporates still not at ease

Susan Fowler’s blog on Sexual Harassment at Uber has not only opened a Pandora’s Box on the issue but also made women come out with their experiences of harassment at different junctures at work. Case in point: TVF, Tesla among others. 

People Matters reached out to Pankaj Sharma, Chief Trustee at Centre for Transforming India (CFTI) and a global expert on workplace sexual harassment to share his thoughts on why corporates are finding it difficult to find a solution to this, and how CFTI has successfully trained and sensitised more than 15000 employees in 35 companies in India. Center for Transforming India is a registered not for profit trust formed with the vision to effectively create social harmony and further the growth of India. 

News of sexual harassment, gender discrimination happens globally - case in point, Uber, Tesla. What should organizations do to benchmark certain procedures to combat this.

Yes, sexual harassment is a global phenomenon and is ubiquitous in nature. The organizations indeed have to benchmark and develop best practices from two perspectives - one being human resource and people management and second being the legal framework for the same. Most critical areas of intervention in this context are -

  • knowledge dissemination in form of regular training and sensitisation across the board
  • development of equitable institutional mechanism to address the issue
  • documentation and issue management SOPs
  • developing soft skills and cultural trainings (many a times a cultural and verbal interpretation can be a cause of potential harassment)
  • developing of informal communication and group level interactions

Organisations need to ensure they understand the intricacies involved in putting up a company policy together for them to be fully and truly compliant on the Sexual Harassment of Women at Wokplace Act 2013. Center for Transforming India (CFTI) in partnership with Avagmah’s ASHA program has educated and trained over 15000 employees across 35 companies in India.

They key is to make organisations and employees understand the functionalities of the Act and make them aware of the procedures involved in becoming so. 

In that benchmarking, how ready are Indian companies compared to other countries, especially when there is the new Sexual Harassment Act?

Indian companies are nearly at bottom of pyramid in the context of their readiness on the issue. This can primarily be attributed to the late incorporation of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act 2013 in the Indian law (The Indian Law is one of the most recent ones, even Pakistan promulgated a law in 2010) and inertia of acceptance of workplace sexual harassment as a real issue which can impact their business and corporate culture. While most companies have formed Internal Complaint Committee (ICC) (as mandated by the law and which carries a penal action in case of failure to do so), they are still far from developing ICC as a robust institutional system. Glaring gaps also exist in domains of employee sensitisation and training efforts, issue management, awareness and human resource angles. 

What are the prevailing pain points as to why organizations find it challenging to address sexual harassment at the workplace?

Even with the law in place, most companies still find it difficult to address issues pertaining to sexual harassment at workplace. The main pain points being:

  • Training and Sensitisation
  • Acceptance of the issue 
  • Redressal systems
  • Constituents of Internal Complaint Committee (ICC)
  • Development of robust institutional structure (a system which is both fair and appears to be fair)

In most cases, the Indian organizations try to scuttle the pain points rather than addressing them. Although, this approach might work marginally fine in short-term, but in the long-term, it can be extremely detrimental to the organizations through loss of productivity, development of acidic work environment, legal issues and legal cost, loss of reputation and bad publicity, etc.

The above-mentioned points also get challenged from the following aspects:

  • Lack of trained expertise in India
  • Issue being purely viewed as legal against HR & Legal combined
  • Nature of treatment (taking it in defensive mode against proactive mode) 
  • Underlying inertia and corporate resistance
  • Lack of regular training and sensitisation efforts

In your experience (of course with anonymity), how do corporates deal to prevent sexual harassment at workplace? Can you elucidate with a few examples?

Based on their own understanding, different corporates deal with issues in different manners. In most cases, efforts are just undertaken to fill the legal and government checklist with little to no efforts on developing a stable institutional mechanism for the same. Most IT companies are trying to include this in larger framework of workplace diversity and trying to figure out systems which can provide for better incident reporting systems. However, they face a challenge in the context of redressal and sensitisation/training. With high attrition rates and some grey areas in law on institutional systems development and frequency of training, they try to surpass those areas which can later come back and hit them hard. Most manufacturing companies (where the diversity of workforce is marginally less) are only concentrating this from a perspective of legal requirements as mandated by Labour Laws of the state of their operation. In such organizations the institutional structure is worse than those in the service-industry. However, the Indian Labour Laws does have some provisions which provide them with some sanctity. 

Most IT and service industry companies in India are registered under ‘Shops and Establishments Act’, where the guidelines for workforce is not well defined and hence service industries (IT, Banks, Media, Airlines, Transportation, Start-ups) are at a greater risk than their manufacturing counterparts on possible repercussions arising out of the issue.

Your research paper is also on this issue. Can you share with us some of the insights? 

My research on the issue of sexual harassment at workplace (the first such study in India and across entire Asia), studied the methodology and systems of addressing the issue in Information Technology Industry. As many as 47% employees did not know where to report, while 91% did not report for fear of being victimized.

The survey covering 600 female employees working in IT and BPO industries across all the major IT destinations of India revealed that there exist poor awareness levels among female employees on the issue and a majority of female employees continued with their ordeal due to fear of professional victimization. Another major finding was that more than 82% of the incidents, which could be classified as sexual incidents occurred outside the boundaries of the office and in nearly 72% of the incidents the perpetrator was a superior. 

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Topics: Culture, Diversity

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