Article: Sexual harassment at workplace in India: A glimpse

#Employee Relations

Sexual harassment at workplace in India: A glimpse

Why do Indian organisations need to urgently address Sexual Harassment at workplace? Let's attempt to find an answer.
Sexual harassment at workplace in India: A glimpse

The rapid pace of corporatisation of the Indian workspace has an unidentified casualty, for it fails to ensure that effective measures and industry-level policies are implemented to safeguard the interests of employees against sexual harassment. Gender inequality and discrimination, as a concept, is firmly rooted in our society, and it would be naive to assume that concrete buildings and plush complexes will be invincible to this practice.

However, India stands at a unique position, for it is just waking up to the seriousness of the issue. The last few years have seen several head of organisations being accused of sexual harassment, and the lack of a proper mechanism to address the same has been at the forefront of the debate. The fact that only 526 cases of sexual harassment of women at workplace were reported in 2014, of which only 57 were reported at office premises, highlights the blaring gap that exists, to even identify and report sexual harassment, let alone address it. In a 2010 survey by IPSOS and Reuters, India recorded highest incidence of sexual harassment, and similar results were found by a Centre for Transforming India survey in 2010, that showed that nearly 88% of the women that were surveyed witnessed some form of workplace sexual harassment during the course of their work. 

It is important to note that, constitutionally, employees that are subjected to sexual harassment can legally file for a redressal. In 1996, the Supreme Court created the first-ever set of guidelines meant to deal with the issue. The high-point of these guidelines was the establishment of an internal complaints committee, headed by a woman, in each organisation. Though Article 141 of the Constitution gave the guidelines legal legitimacy, the fact that it was absent from statute books and there was no sanctions on defaulters meant that the guidelines were barely followed. This came into light in the headline-grabbing case, when Tehelka magazine founder Tarun Tejpal was accused of sexually assaulting a woman employee. From outright denial, to admittance of the fact that the Committee was non-existential, the way Tehelka handled the issue also came under fire. However, the low-point in this discourse was definitely was the response of IL&FS, a Mumbai-based Infrastructure Development and Finance Company, to a complaint filed by a woman employee regarding prolonged sexual harassment. Not only did IL&FS deny the charges blatantly, but went onto prepare a list of movies that used the cuss word in questions, and tried to establish the same words as part of ‘Mumbai slang’. The incident sent shockwaves into the industry for it had two direct outcomes:

  • The incident proved the corporates in India had negligent knowledge to deal with issues and claims of sexual harassment, and immediately jumped to their own defence, no matter the case.

  • The incident also cemented the notion that in the face of such an event, the organisation is rarely going to support the complainant. This indicated to the hostile environment that exists, in case a person who is subjected to sexual harassment decided to speak up, which could very well be a reason for the abysmal number of cases that are actually reported.

Studies done in India, by various organisations like the Lawyers Collective, and individuals, have concluded similar findings, about most women respondents not complaining to supervisors or the management about their experiences of sexual harassment at work and dealing with it on their own. They did not report due to fear for further harassment, apprehension of adverse effect on their employment, lack of confidence in the complaints mechanism, possible defamation or threats from the perpetrators and other such reasons. And these concerns are well founded, for the recent case in which a woman employee accused TERI Chief R.K. Pachauri of sexual harassment, had to quit the organisation after 8 months of unpaid and forced leave. Furthermore, TERI made the colossal mistake of revealing her identity, thus only reiterating the fact that even established names of the industry need urgent training, guidance and direction to effectively deal with Sexual Harassment cases. This is not an isolated case. One of the most likely outcomes of such cases is that the complainant’s department/profile is changed (usually demoted) and the employee is eventually terminated due to ‘underperformance’. The dimension of power dynamics and hierarchy make it all the more difficult for employees at a junior level to report their seniors.

It is probably the contentious nature of the issue, that prevents companies to even identify and talk about it, let alone rectify it, when lightning strikes home. Furthermore, cases of false accusations have also been registered, wherein a woman employee was found settling scores with a senior/colleague, which has weakened the discourse. Also important to note is the fact that even though the debate is largely focussed on women; male employees are susceptible to similar harassment as well. A media survey done revealed that 38% of respondents across seven cities in India said that ‘men are as vulnerable to sexual harassment is as women’. Additionally, a very thin and almost invisible line of differentiation demarcates the concept of sexual harassment. 

However, it cannot be denied that sexual harassment is a growing, yet still an unidentified threat to employees, especially women employees of the country. Acute misinformation, ignorance and stigma go hand-in-hand with the very idea of sexual harassment in workplace, for the problem exists at all three levels of the process: identification, reportage and redressal. It is in the best results of the industry to strengthen their internal policies, educate their employees, and stick to the policies, not only on paper but in spirit as well. The realisation that such incidents will not occur if their existence is denied or suppressed and that denying the charges might be counter-productive needs to sink in. All in all, lack of information and the will to use that information are the biggest obstacle to protect employees against sexual harassment in today’s corporate culture.

Watch out for Part 2 of the series, where we discuss what constitutes Sexual Harassment at Workplace, discuss in detail the legal aspects and also explore the measure employers and employees can undertake to safeguard their interests!

Topics: Employee Relations

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