Awareness is key to preventing sexual harassment at the workplace

For all working women, the recent incidents of sexual harassment that made headlines—from the case involving news and entertainment firm ScoopWhoop co-founder Suparn Pandey to the ouster of Fox News TV presenter Bill O’Reilly—have been uncomfortable reminders of a workplace reality that is more prevalent than we think. A survey conducted by the Indian National Bar Association earlier this year found that 38% of 6,047 participants, both female and male, had faced sexual harassment at the workplace.

However, 69% did not report it. “Most victims do not report due to fear of retaliation, embarrassment, lack of awareness and lack of confidence in the complaints mechanism,” says Ishani Roy, founder of Serein, a diversity and inclusion consulting firm in Bengaluru.

Having said that, the past few years have seen an increase in the number of cases being reported; the country’s first piece of legislation on this, the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act of 2013, came into force on 9 December that year.

“In the past, sexual harassment in the workplace was brushed under the carpet as regulations in this area were weak. After the Act, however, there has been a rapid increase in awareness and attention in organizations,” says Prabir Jha, president and global chief people officer of pharmaceutical firm Cipla Ltd, which has a prevention of sexual harassment policy, in accordance with the Act’s requirements. And it conducts refresher training on this for all employees.

“Any unwelcome behaviour to a woman amounts to sexual harassment. The law emphasizes on prevention rather than redressal. But in the event of an incidence, the law mandates a strong complaint mechanism and quick redressal,” explains Vishal Kedia, founder-director of ComplyKaro, a regulatory compliance company.

Among other obligations, the Act has made it mandatory for companies to disclose, in annual reports, the number of such cases filed and disposed of, and the number of awareness programmes organized. Additionally, firms have to submit an annual report from the internal complaints committee (ICC). The report has to disclose, among other things, the number of awareness programmes carried out in that particular year for employees and ICC members.

“Although we are now seeing more requests for training and complying with the law on sexual harassment at the workplace (there was a year-on-year rise of around 30% in reported cases disclosed by listed companies in 2015-16), many companies are still not taking the issue as seriously. Though it’s mandated by law, around 25% of the companies listed on BSE 500 have not disclosed the requisite information in the annual report in the financial year in 2015-16,” says Kedia.

The reasons include lack of awareness. Many believe the Act doesn’t apply to firms with two-three people or a company that has no women employees, says Kedia, adding that some firms think such awareness programmes may lead to a misuse of provisions by women staffers. Some companies, he adds, haven’t made budgetary allocations for training and resources.

A 2016 survey of 614 firms across the country by ComplyKaro and the Institute of Company Secretaries of India showed that 40% had not conducted sensitization or awareness programmes for all employees and 36% did not have external members in their ICCs.

Yet awareness really is the most practical and effective solution to prevent sexual harassment at the workplace, says Kirthi Jayakumar, founder-chief executive of The Red Elephant Foundation, which works in the field of gender equality. “Most often, people do not fully understand behaviours that constitute harassment or even that the term workplace is all encompassing—it includes the actual office space as much as it includes work-related phone calls, mails, chats, travel, or when the professional relationship subsists,” says Jayakumar.

Although the law does not stipulate the number of times training should be conducted, other than mandating “regular” awareness programmes, Kedia says organizations should organize it at least once a year, for all employees.

One size doesn’t fit all

When it comes to designing a training programme, a “one-size-fits-all” approach is not the most effective method. “Employees in supervisory roles need to be well-versed with the appropriate course of action following a complaint while an entry-level employee need not,” says Roy. Therefore, they need to be tailor-made for organizations and designed differently for different levels (see “Teach and learn”).

For the programme to be effective, participants must be able to relate to the examples and context used in the training material. “Content was defined keeping in mind the audience, relevance to our industry and statutory regulations,” says Kishore Poduri, country head (human resource), DBS Bank India. “We started with classroom trainings in 2016 and now we are in the phase of developing an online interactive training module on prevention of sexual harassment for all employees,” he adds.

Additionally, to ensure better retention post-training, it is important to reinforce the message through posters, screensavers, quizzes, etc., using communication channels such as the company’s intranet and newsletter. For instance, technology firm Infosys uses email campaigns and posters, stressing the importance of professional behaviour. Similarly, Cipla has posters promoting a positive and sexual harassment-free work environment displayed across its establishments.

Experts caution that training can only be effective as a prevention tool if it goes beyond the obligations of a mandatory programme. “Barring a handful of companies, most companies’ anti-harassment trainings are focused on avoiding legal liability rather than appropriate behaviour as a preventive measure,” says Nirmala Menon, founder and chief executive of Interweave Consulting, a diversity and inclusion consulting firm in Bengaluru. Very often, says Menon, the programmes lack nuanced discussions on appropriate behaviour, power dynamics, discrimination, real-life scenarios, and learnings from past cases.

It is important to get everyone trained, even, and in fact especially, busy senior executives. “Business leaders—busy dealing with many pressing matters—may not be able to give the required attention to this subject since it does not have visible business impact unless an incidence takes place,” says Jha. However, they have to be sensitized to the possible business impact and the risk to the organization’s reputation and goodwill. “Only then they will take interest and take out time,” he adds.

Prevention of sexual harassment is imperative today, say human resource (HR) executives. “You cannot build a diverse and inclusive organization unless women feel respected and equal in all aspects. A strong policy posture and a visible track record of good handling of incidents of harassment with firmness is essential to good reputation and a safe and credible workplace for women,” says Chandrasekhar Sripada, president and global head of HR at Dr Reddy’s Laboratories Ltd, a Hyderabad-based pharmaceutical firm. “HR has to be a champion and advocate not only of building a harassment-free workplace but also a more proactive developmental framework for growing women into leadership.”

Culture, obviously, is top-driven. It is the commitment to a safe and fair workplace that sets the tone.


Teach and learn

A robust awareness programme on sexual harassment should include, but not be limited to, the following

■It must explain that the law covers all employees (regular, part-time, daily wage, contract) and that workplace implies the place of work and anything and everything related to work, like mails and phone calls.

■It must outline that sexual harassment is not limited to physical harassment. It also includes any unwelcome verbal and non-verbal conduct of a sexual nature.

■It should cover in detail clauses on confidentiality, protection from retaliation and interim support as mandated by law.

■It should ensure that the participants have a good understanding of why it is perception, not intention, that is critical to maintaining a respectful workplace.


Steps to take when harassed

■Call out offensive behaviour. Firmly tell your harasser to stop.

■In case you can’t confront the harasser yourself, seek guidance from the firm’s designated resource.

■Put down your message in black and white; a written message is more powerful.

■Send the email privately. Restrict it to the persons involved.

■Keep proof. Save any letters, emails or notes you may have about the situation if the harassment persists.