The Harvey Weinstein expose followed by the #metoo campaign on social media has suddenly tossed the issue of Sexual Harassment to center stage. Despite several high profile cases, many companies in my opinion just pay lip service to this topic; or just do not demonstrate the execution rigor that is necessary to translate good intent to action on the ground. The gap between intent and action on the ground becomes even more pronounced in distributed organizations with far flung operations in areas outside the close scrutiny of corporate.
I have been a firm believer that every great idea and every noble intention is meaningless unless backed up by consistent and flawless execution. And it is in execution where the rubber hits the road that most good intentions fail to take root. As a result, an organization is always reacting to the latest incident rather than creating a framework and climate that can prevent these incidents in the first place.
Translating good intent to action through flawless execution
- There needs to be written policy (in all relevant local languages). This policy needs to be communicated and displayed at all prominent locations.
- Sexual harassment is a complex subject with several nuances and shades of gray. Ensure that the leadership team in your company completely understands these nuances. They need to be tested for their understanding with a set of questions and cases. Passing the test with a high score must be mandatory. Most organizations completely skip this step.
- Internal Complaint Committees(ICCs) need to be created in every office and region. Every member of the ICC needs to know her/his duties and stringent action taken against members who do not take their role seriously. Every meeting of the ICC needs to be minuted. The chairperson should know the consequences if an audit reveals that a meeting was not minuted.
- Have an external expert advise you on this. Involve this person in all investigations. The role of this person is both to provide expert advice as well as ensure that you stay honest. Have a relationship based on complete disclosure and transparency.
- The induction process needs to be designed in a way that every woman employee goes through a special session on this topic – the recourse available to her if she is even remotely subjected to any kind of harassment. The most important thing here is to have a simple tracker made available to a central team in Corporate that provides the required assurance that EVERY woman employee has gone through this special session. The corporate team randomly calls a few women from far-flung locations to check if they have indeed gone through the session as recorded in the tracker. God save the HR person in the region if a woman says she has not gone through this session.
- A monthly call with the senior-most executive in every region to inquire into the health of the processes governing the prevention of sexual harassment.
We have noticed that despite the rigorous execution, cases of sexual harassment come up once in a while. In a good number of these cases, we noticed that the perpetrators are those that are most responsible for preventing these incidents in the first place. And, in most cases, the perpetrators are first time offenders who no one would have ever suspected. Most of them otherwise had a reputation as good corporate citizens. One can never say when the dark side of an individual’s character would emerge. The lesson in this is, do not stereotype and do not take anything for granted.
The obvious question is if the consequences are so clear, then why would someone indulge in something like this? The only explanation we could think of for this seeming paradox is that they seem to think they can get away. If the organization can spot such incidents (even if they are not reported) and can consistently punish the perpetrators, the message gradually goes down that the long arm of the company law would eventually get them. And, such incidents would gradually cease.
Some organizations say that “we are like one large family, so we do not have to worry about this”. This attitude is dangerous. An organization is not a family for the purpose of this subject. Professional rather than familial relationships need to be encouraged and instituted.
At BigBasket, a good number of women employees work in the distribution centers (DC) mostly as packers, and sometimes as pickers. Part of the duties of the DC head is to meet the women employees every month in a group. You guessed it – this meeting needs to be minuted. If a meeting is not minuted it has not happened! And if it has not happened the DC head has some serious explaining to do.
Have a process for swift investigation and action. Your decision should never depend upon the business criticality of a role holder. Your people are watching. One wrong move and your organization’s reputation could be damaged forever, leave alone the legal and other implications.
There needs to be a commitment to preventing sexual harassment at multiple levels:
- Level 1 is a basic philosophical belief that this is wrong, unacceptable and there will be zero tolerance on this count
- Level 2 is about instituting the right mechanisms to communicate, dissuade and prevent
- Level 3 is about great execution which works on the principle of “trust in God but lock your car” ; and swift action on individuals committing any violation irrespective of the business criticality or seniority of their role.