Blog: Sexual harassment: How to handle cases when the accused is defensive

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Sexual harassment: How to handle cases when the accused is defensive

How to deal with an employee guilty of sexual harassment? Can s/he be reformed and learn to respect the other co-workers? What should be done to make this happen?
Sexual harassment: How to handle cases when the accused is defensive

"I did not make any advances’’, mentioned Roshan sounding and looking very shaky. ‘’I merely complimented and flirted within the acceptable norms’’, he further added before breaking down. For many of us HR people, this is nothing new when probing into allegations of sexual harassment as part of Prevention of Sexual Harassment (POSH) committee. 

Many a time you wonder what the alleged person was thinking and how he could afford to get into an incident jeopardizing his whole career and importantly, his values and reputation. Take this case of Roshan – a smart grad we picked in the year 2013,  a successful ‘High Flyer’ with 3 promotions in the last 3 years. A Star performer and a favorite among clients, ‘Making it happen’ has always been his key strength, coupled with consistency. 

How to approach a guilty employee

Clearly, a senior leader in the near future through our succession plan, what a loss if proved guilty, I thought. As the probe continued, it was becoming clear that Roshan has stepped into the personal boundaries of the victim and at times gave in to the weakness of his mind, persuading and eventually forcing the victim. It is a SHAME

As HR, we will have zero tolerance for such inappropriate behavior. Roshan was terminated; the victim, on the other hand, was reassured and was instilled with a whole lot of confidence, especially through our women’s welfare club – a club dedicated to the welfare of the women workforce. This exclusive women’s club educates our women workforce in dealing with such matters among other welfare activities for women, including ‘Glass Ceiling’ and 20/20 targets. On the other side, Roshan completed his exit formalities and carried the baggage of lifelong guilt staring at an uncertain career. 

Later that night, my mobile rang and displayed his name. He needs help and support; it is at times like this, people make some important life-changing decisions. This guy needed a true friend and counselor. ‘Hello Roshan’, I responded to the call to be with him in a time of difficulty. Over the next 60 minutes, as a good listener, I heard him out. As one would have expected, for the most part of the conversation, Roshan sounded defensive and justified his actions, stating what transpired was purely circumstantial and was motivated by the victim. 

The fact was, he was inconsistent in the way he spoke and was now clearly shaken and alone and afraid. With an unbalanced frame of mind, he badly needs emotional support; and I was glad that I took his call to hear him out. But he needs more than that, so wearing a cap of a coach, I offered to meet him over lunch the next day.

As we sat over the lunch, I realized this is not the Roshan that we knew. The few days, especially the last 48 hours, have had a devastating effect on him. Determined to help him with my limited coaching skills, I further heard his version of the story. Over the next 2 hours, he sounded genuine and honest on the incident. Perhaps the fact that he was officially out of the firm’s payrolls and he was talking to another person whom he trusted, made him agree that he was at fault. One thing that came out very clear is, many times, Roshan ‘was not aware’ of the consequences of his behavior, at least the initial stages. 

He spoke about the progressive different situations, the personality of men on the whole; and tried painting broad strokes that all men are victims in such situations. I was tempted to comment on his unfair statement, but the inner coach in me, on the other hand, wanted to help him deal with the present - here and now – and eventually the future, not to dwell in the past and judgements, an essence of our coaching practice that I picked from the International Coaching Federation

We further discussed through a direct communication and agreed to meet periodically until he picked up to be the real Roshan that he was. He was very thankful and said that this support right now made him feel confident and was making a true difference to him before we made our separate ways back to our walks of life.

True difference

As I drove back home, I wondered what qualifies to be a ‘True Difference’ in a situation like this.

Is it a quality of an individual to be with a person like Roshan and lift him in troubled times, or is it to ensure preventive measures to save many such Roshans and the victims? It definitely has to be the second one.

My rationale was backed by the reality of the current situations prevailing in organizations in handling issues around this. For e.g., one report states that 47% Of Indian women find sexual harassment at the workplace a big issue. Another report states 'Seven out of ten women sexually harassed'. Yes clearly, the second option is the right way. The question is How? 

I further reflected on it and I realized that I needed to speak to more Roshans if a true difference has to be made. Over the next 6 months, I approached many such members in the outside world, only to be politely declined. As I continued my efforts, I got a chance to speak to 3 such Roshans. Brave as they are, they opened up to me when I shared my interest in making a true difference. If anything, they deserve all the credit for being open and honest about the allegations; and the real truth, which in all cases, found to be guilty. It became very clear that there is a need for a ROSHAN CLUB for a True Difference. 

Approach for a Roshan club to be effective 

First, there needs to be awareness among the Roshans about what the acceptable limits of conduct with the opposite gender is. I recommend this as I believe in most cases, the Roshans are not aware (and at least a few claims not to be aware) of their actions. This awareness is a key aspect and it needs to go beyond the regular input of different forms of advances and the repercussions etc. 

This should be about how and why women should be treated with respect and dignity. It should be driven by their value system and the Roshans should be guardian angels promoting this value. Just like our forefathers promoted this value system in the society by representing Mother Nature as the personification of a woman. 

One way of doing this can be by creating artefacts within the organization representing this culture both implicit and explicit in nature. It can be as simple as naming the training/other meeting rooms with women names or bringing in a Namaste culture (Do not initiate a hands shake unless the lady feels comfortable about it and initiates), or even the Roshan club can be headed by a woman leader. The larger point is, such a culture gives a clear awareness about how the organization treats women with respect and dignity and the appropriate behavior it seeks from all Roshans. Most importantly, it should be driven in its true spirit with the full support of the leadership and not as a ghetto of some HR initiative club.

Second, there should be no tension between a culture and the reality. For e.g., one report states that one-third of office romances end in marriage and interestingly 37% of them are forced to hide their relationship from the co-workers and the employer. If that is the case, our policies should be balanced and practical. We cannot build an adult culture if we do not let them enjoy a relationship in a dignified manner. Maybe it is time for HR to bring in an ‘Express Interest’ adult culture. The primary objective of this adult culture is, it is OK to express interest, but NOT OK to pursue the interest if it is not by mutual consent. 

HR can contribute to this in building this culture in many ways, increasing the emotional intelligence, especially on the social and the relationship management part, can be one aspect. Another field of science that can contribute tremendously to the HR’s effort would be Transactional Analysis. TA can build organizational adult culture, be it making them aware of their ego states or games people play. It can open up an individual perception and behavior to the group dynamics for an overall adult behavior and symbiosis.

Third, we need to train about other cultures. This training should be imparted not just with the Roshans, but also with the general new joining workforce as part of induction and orientation. At a  time of increased competition, thanks to globalization and technology advancement, Organizations are opting for a diverse workforce for competitive advantage. Even at a national level, in a country like ours, we have a diverse workforce coming from different cultures and subsets with a healthy mixture of the male and female population. According to one report by Nasscom, the ratio is likely to be 65:35 (men: women) in IT. This ratio is reversed in the ITES-BPO sector, where the ratio of men to women is 31:69.  

If that is the case, we should be cognizant of various shades of cultures and be sensitive to it. For e.g., even between the North and South Indians, or from metros and cities and those who are hailing from other parts, the way we greet, interact and appreciate each other differs. Therefore, what is accepted and what is not accepted has to be constantly embedded in their value system, as it will shape the framework of employee interaction. 

We need to ensure that everyone to see the co-worker with mutual respect and this support has to be ongoing, considering the natural attraction to the opposite gender. 

It is given that, a Roshan club cannot be an answer for prevention of such unpleasant incidents, but it will definitely make a true difference in educating the Roshans of our workforce in conducting themselves through an appropriate behavior’ through awareness. It is our responsibility considering we have the largest youth population in the world. The median age in India is 27.6 years (compared to 37.9 years in the United States). With consistent efforts and the right governance, we can build a healthy progressive culture saving the Roshans of our organization!

I have jotted down few of my ideas in this article. I will truly value any comments or ideas from you. You can also write to me to my email, krish.odconsultant@gmail.com

Topics: Blog, Employee Relations, Diversity, Culture

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