Harassment At Workplace: How Safe Are The Workplaces For Female Professionals?
Posted in Human Resources Articles, Total Reads: 1112
, Published on 02 February 2015
Sexual harassment is defined as sexually determined unwelcome behavior which may be direct or implied, physical contact and advances, a demand or request for sexual favors, sexually colored remarks, showing pornography, any other unwelcome physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of sexual nature.
Irrespective of the place, whether it is a ‘four walled’ precinct or an open arena, sexual harassment is prevalent everywhere. Such activities are no longer confined to streets or recreation parks or any other such public places, but workplaces have also become home to such heinous acts. A workplace would mean any place visited by the employees during work hours. The victims of sexual harassment have mostly been women and sexual harassment has gained limelight because of many cases coming up after the brutal death of a physiotherapy student inside a bus in Delhi followed by similar cases in Mumbai, Kolkata, Uttar Pradesh etc.
According to a survey, out of 131 countries, India ranks 11th from the bottom in female labor force participation. This low rank is due to many reasons like the cultural attitude which still hinders women in stepping out of their homes and working with men, social norms like the attitude that women are meant to do household work only and the fear of sexual harassment these days is hindering the growth of women professionals in a country like India. We talk about gender equality, women empowerment; equal opportunity for women etc but such initiatives would be useless unless we grant safety and security for women.
The earliest guidelines framed with regard to Sexual Harassment were the Vishaka Guidelines that came in 1997 after the alleged gang rape of a social activist named Bhanwari Devi because she was protesting against child marriage. The Salient features of Vishaka Guidelines are:
1. Awareness and Publication of Women Employees Rights: This stipulates that organization’s policies and code of conduct should include ’Prohibition of sexual harassment policy’ as well and it should be well notified and communicated at the work place.
2. Criminal Proceedings: If any case of sexual harassment is reported, the employer should initiate criminal proceedings with appropriate authority.
3. Indiscrimination: There should be no discrimination against the victim or perpetrator during the investigation.
4. Disciplinary Action: Appropriate actions should be taken against the victims involved in the misconduct.
5. Investigating Committee: The investigating committee should be headed by a woman and half of its members should be women. Apart from this, a trusted third party, such as any NGO or any other individual having knowledge of criminal proceedings can also be a part of the committee.
6. Confidentiality: The investigating committee should be capable enough to provide counselling and support services and maintain confidentiality of the matter.
7. Forum to voice sexual offences: There should be forums to enable employees to raise and discuss their issues fearlessly.
8. Third Party Harassment: If any third party or outsider is involved in the act, then the organization should take necessary steps to support the victim and in ensuring preventive action.
9. Preventive Steps: Preventive actions should be taken by framing rules and regulation to prevent sexual harassment and hostility towards women at work.
10. Hygiene Factors: Appropriate provision for work, health and hygiene should be provided to women to make them feel safe and protected at the workplace.
Another ray of hope in this regard was given by the Hon. Supreme Court when it passed the Sexual Harassment of Women at the Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 in April, 2013 and rules for implementation of this Act were notified on December 9, 2013. The Act was heavily based on the Vishaka guidelines of the Supreme Court. This Act stipulates that every organization should have a Sexual Harassment Cell for Redressal of harassment cases and Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) should be formed to redress any workplace harassment complaints. The company’s operations could be closed down if it fails to abide by such guidelines.
An interesting paradigm is that according to many surveys conducted by different groups and organizations, very few organizations have included workplace sexual harassment in their service rules while many of them are still clueless about it and have no such mechanism in place. This leaves a massive gap in dealing with such cases and rendering justice to the victim of sexual harassment.
The HR Managers have focused only on key functional areas like recruitment and selection, compensation and benefits, statutory compliances and so on. Recently the concept of labor laws has been added to the HR Manager’s kitty, but still the issues of sexual harassment are a newer area for them.
The irony is that even after laws have been framed, there are still incidents of sexual harassment at the workplaces which poses a big question about the effectiveness of the judicial system. The case of the beleaguered editor of Tehelka, Tarun Tejpal shows that Indian workplaces have a long way to go to reach at the position when every female employee can feel safe even in the four walls of the workplace. This fact indicates that simply framing laws and passing Acts is not sufficient; these things remain on paper and the victim still has to fight for years to get justice.
Currently there are many loopholes in the way the guidelines of the Act are being executed by the organizations. First is the Internal Complaints Committee which is comprised of internal employees of the company. Even Justice J S Verma, the author of the Vishakha guidelines, had expressed skepticism about this structure because the committee can easily be influenced to modify or mould the case in any manner if the culprit is a person from the top hierarchy or a powerful boss. Since the members can easily be influenced and if any person from higher echelon is the culprit, the victims choose silence instead of raising their voice. Second is the manner in which investigation procedure takes place. Every time the investigating committee inquires the victim about the turn of events, it becomes humiliating for her to furnish every minute detail in front of the members. Even the superstar Aamir Khan talked about the challenges faced by the victims of sexual harassment in his reality show ‘Satyamev Jayate’. The procedure followed during an investigation is so humiliating to the woman that she has to give up hope to get justice. The show talked about forming ‘One-Stop Rape Crisis’ so that every proceeding can take place under a single roof. This can be done even in workplaces as well by forming ‘One Stop Investigation Cell against Sexual Harassment’. Sexual harassment by co-workers is a big issue for female professionals because it is not just sexual harassment, but also physical, mental, verbal and non-verbal in nature which affects their performance as the experience is very humiliating and unsafe.
Due to the absence of proper judicial and fair systems, many women are compelled to remain silent over such issues for the fear of losing their jobs and being alleged herself for promoting such unacceptable activities in the workplace. The managers and other colleagues in the organization turn hostile towards the victims in case they raise their voice against such misconduct. This often forces women to leave organizations and face financial insecurity.
The internal complaint committee at the workplace is meant to ‘provide a platform for resolution, settlement and prosecution for the acts of sexual harassment' and suggest preventive measures. It is important to ensure that these guidelines are implemented in full spirit and are not just kept on paper. It would not be wrong to say that there are many shortcomings in the law or workplace systems which are enough to curb the creation of an equitable workplace in India. This in turn deeply impacts the Indian economy since the organizations would devote their precious time and effort in managing workplace sexual harassment issues than on expanding their business and generating more revenue.
Therefore, unless there are fair and proper systems in place to look into such grave matters, Indian workplaces will continue to witness either false cases or not provide fair justice in real cases of workplace sexual harassment. This ultimately defeats the larger issue of positive gender assimilation and bringing in equitable work culture.
This article has been authored by Aprajita Gupta from Andhra Bank