It was a regular day for Atishay (name changed), who works as an HR manager for a very reputed MNC. He received a mail from a team member from Design team. “Sexual harassment complaint against X and Y,” the subject line was sufficient for him to sweat. “This is to bring to your kind attention, that I was recruited to this company earlier this month by you, on the assurance that the company is an advocate of equal opportunity. However, after the very first week, two of my colleagues started with verbal homophobic abuse. On complaining to the team manager, I was advised to ignore, and behave more “manly.” The verbal abuses, started getting physical, when these two started touching me inappropriately in the name of “being friendly.” Yesterday, I was called by them on the pretext of apology, where I was forced to do things which I cannot put down in this mail.”
Atishay, even with a work experience of 7 years did not know how to solve this issue. As much he wanted to go ahead and help this new joinee, he did not know the way to do it. He didn’t know whether the ICC even has a provision for sexual harassment against men, whether this is within the purview of the internal complaint committee that addresses sexual harassment or not as the law deals only with women victims, and he didn’t know how to conduct the hearing and collect evidence.
This dilemma is not unique to Atishay alone.
Ever after Vishakha guidelines, the companies started entrusting HR associates with the responsibility of dealing with sexual harassment cases. With the enactment of Sexual Harassment (prevention, prohibition and redressal) Act of 2013 these responsibilities have become indispensable with the profile of HR managers. And rightly so, because as someone taking care of the human resource of the company, any harm to the dignity of such individuals is the responsibility of the HR team.
On questioning Shalini Khanna, Director at NAB India and external member of ICC for over 13 companies, on her thoughts about HR managers being entrusted with such responsibility, she said, “You see, for most of the companies it’s just compliance. Sexual harassment complaints for them are like any other inter-company complaint and thus are handed over to HR Managers. Although, HR managers try their best, but it is a huge responsibility which needs a lot of training, tools and budget. Most of the HR managers generally are clueless, and they can’t be even blamed for that. Just think about it, if you will ask a lawyer to start working as a counselor for victims without adequate training, he may not be good at it.”
While many HR managers are working very hard to make the workplace safer for women, many of them fail to do so. The reason for this failure is among many things that they are not given a budget, resources or training around sexual harassment. Most of them are simply asked to implement a law they do not understand. After all, apart from the mere legal provisions, they need to know a lot more - such as principles of natural justice which one must adhere to during hearings, how to manage ICCs in different offices and locations, who to hire as expert, and even how to handle the police when a disgruntled employee approaches the police instead of the HR or simply get a lawyer to send a legal notice to the organization! It is not only lack of knowledge and training, HR managers hands can be tied due to apathy of management, lack of tools or improper budget allocation. As a result, Indian workplaces continue to remain unsafe.
There can be no amount of redressal that could possibly compensate for what a victim goes through, however the risks and effect to the business are also massive. Following are the threats caused to business:
Disruption of work culture
Firstly, a sexual harassment complaint, if not addressed properly, can totally disrupt the workplace culture, which you as an HR manager has been working so hard to improve. For example, imagine that a complaint against a top-level management executive has been filed with you. If you fail to address it at the right time to the satisfaction of the victim, it is almost certainly going to be out in the open as she eventually seeks redressal outside.
Reduction in goodwill and loyalty amongst the employees
Remember how we took pride in our schools and colleges? Workplace, being the provider of our daily breads is still closer to our hearts. In such a case, the loyalty towards the company is bound to be affected. Imagine, would you want to work for an organization whose goodwill and fairness is under question? Can you be loyal to an organization whose management is trying to conceal facts or not helping a victim with her rights? In absence of a proper redressal mechanism, the goodwill of the company amongst its employees fails and the loyalty evaporates. Justice cannot only be done but must be seen to be done.
Distortion of public image due to media lynching
While the inter-organization peace is disrupted, everything becomes a lot more ugly once the news is out in media. With social media being very powerful, it is now extremely difficult to control outbreak of a news like this. A company majorly runs on its brand value.
Difficulty in talent acquisition
As an HR manager, a failed redressal would also make talent acquisition difficult in the future. Once the public perception of the company is that there exists toxic/unfair work environment within the company, hiring top talent with many options become next to impossible or very expensive.
HR’s dilemma - to replace the senior management personnel or not
When a person in senior management is accused of sexual harassment, he becomes a huge liability to the organization. Be it online shaming, disruption of work culture or bringing a bad name to the company, nothing is beyond possibilities. On the other hand, suddenly replacing a high performing manager or key employee on grounds of sexual harassment means that the company is left with major problems within the organization. These firings can lead to major losses and even collapse of verticals.
Times are changing. HR managers now have to explain to top management why compliance with sexual harassment laws is not just a checkbox to somehow tick. You need to make a case for making workplaces truly safe and fair for women.
Making the top level management understand that a mere sexual harassment policy is not the solution, implementation is the key
Very often top level management simply consider sexual harassment policy as compliance done and do not want to invest any further into it. While you might want to ensure that there is a higher budget allocated for it or there are better experts on the panel, your company might resist doing it as they see it as a cost that comes with no benefits.
It is at this point when you need to make them understand the potential harm that can arise out of sexual harassment taking place, or even worse, what damage an incompetent panel can do to your workplace. You need to ensure that they see the bigger picture. It is your duty to ask for a budget which can facilitate awareness campaigns, regular meeting of ICC, training of ICC members, training for employees and periodical audits. You need to make a strong case for why absence of these can lead to irreparable damage which would be much more costly. If you plan to or are asked to take up this responsibility, you must do full justice to it. Consider getting a full-scale training in sexual harassment compliance for yourself or at least one person from the HR team. Don’t forget to train your ICC members either.
Creating a policy tailored for your workplace
Many would just tell you to take a template and edit it a bit before notifying it to your company. That is probably not a great idea.
As an HR you just don’t need to ensure the constitution of an ICC, but deal with issues like how to find an expert member and evaluating their work, figuring out an exit process for the ones who want to exit ICC, maintaining the anonymity of the ones who file complaints, the procedure for complaining and finding out whether the complaint is properly addressed or not.
“At least one employer who has approached NCW for advice said it was tough to decide who was credible enough to be external expert and claimed that the solution lay in ‘certified experts’ from the women’s panel”, points out a report by ABP Live, India.
While you are formulating a policy, you just cannot copy and paste a policy from another company. You need to speak to experts, you need to survey your own workspace, read about the law or take up courses like this which don’t just give you an executive certification but also ensures that you get sufficient practical knowledge about it.
Ground Level Challenges
As an HR manager you will also face various challenges, from different levels of organization. The attitude of a white collar employee would be way different from that of a blue collar employee. The definition of sexual harassment in their mind can be different based on their social background. While the verbal abuse might be harassment for some, even a touch might not bother some. In case of a mishap, while the people at higher end may try to conceal the facts and suppress the issue, a labourer may want to agitate. You will be the first hand channel who will have to deal with both of them at once.
As an HR manager, you need to be proactive at all times. It is important that you see sexual harassment prevention as one of your major responsibility and take proper steps to ensure that actions are taken to ensure a safe workplace for all. If the policy isn’t made, take charge and make it before it's too late. If your company lacks awareness, train them so that the workplace culture you are working so hard for remains healthy. However, most of all, ensure you are trained well enough to deal with this very difficult challenge with confidence and mastery.