Friday, April 7, 2017

Organizations must help break the silence

By Sharda Vishwanathan

The last few weeks, there have been a string of unfortunate events that have thrown light on sexual harassment at workplace, a topic which is often shushed and covered under wraps. I vividly remember my discussion with a friend about the recent case of sexual harassment involving one of India’s well-known online entertainment company- The Viral Fever, and the immediate reaction I received was, “How do you know the incident reported is authentic. It is an anonymous entry.” When I think of this reaction, I know he is not the only one. This was a recurring theme across many discussions on this particular incident and on sexual harassment in general.

While it’s easy to rubbish off a report or a complaint as false and question it’s authenticity, I think it becomes important to understand how we as a society contribute towards creating fear and intimidation for survivors of sexual assault or harassment to break the silence.

Social Stigma: The social stigma associated with sexual harassment often forces the survivor to not report the incident or to file an anonymous complaint. “You must have done something to have invited it!” “You were inappropriately dressed!” “It’s your fault, you were drunk!” and many such absurd statements that time and again blame and shame the survivor. And every aspect of her life is suddenly under the scanner.

Lack of faith and fear of retaliation: In a survey on sexual harassment conducted by the Indian National Bar Association, 65% of the respondents felt their companies did not follow the process prescribed under the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013. 66.7% of the survivors felt that the Internal Complaints Committee did not deal with the complaint fairly. Further, 42.2% of the survivors felt that they were not treated fairly by their peers and colleagues during the investigation period. A classic case in point is the initial response by The Viral Fever  which was not just intimidating but refuted the claims and pronounced the report as a false allegation thus, highlighting how often organizations do very little to build faith and trust in the survivors by promising a fair investigation.

Intersectionality of class/ caste/ religion with gender:  Across cases, one observes that the power hierarchy established due to class, caste and religion often force women to silently suffer sexual harassment.

Lack of understanding of the law and sexual harassment: Awareness is a major challenge when it comes to issues around sexual harassment. Often companies as well as employees are unaware of the provisions of the The Sexual Harassment Of Women At Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition And Redressal) Act, 2013. Further, despite the definitions clearly in place, complaints are often brushed off as mere flirting and does not get any cognisance until they are severe/ extreme in nature. No matter how small an offence is, harassment is harassment. Be it physical or non-physical in nature, every incident of harassment should be looked into.

Job uncertainty and future career prospects: In most cases, 50% of the survivors left the company either after the case is investigated or after the incident, should no action be taken by the company.  Fearing adverse publicity and the impact that could have on future job opportunities, women often choose to remain silent.

It is clear that there is so much more to why survivors of sexual harassment often do not come forward and file a complaint. It now becomes important to highlight what is required of the organizations and the society to create a more conducive environment that promotes safety at the workplace and promotes diversity and equality.

Have a well-defined sexual harassment policy in place: It is binding on every organization with 10 or more employees to have a well-drafted sexual harassment policy in place.

Mandatory to identify an Internal Complaints Committee: In line with the provisions listed under The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act, 2013, it is mandatory for every organization to constitute an Internal Complaints Committee to investigate complaints of sexual harassment.

Create awareness about the policy amongst the employees:  Every organization must share the sexual harassment policy guidelines with every employee of the organization. This can be done at the time of onboarding for a new employee and by sending a hard copy of the policy or by sharing a soft copy for the existing employees.

Ensure safety and security of a survivor: It is imperative for every organization to create a safe and secure environment that encourages survivors of sexual harassment to come forward and file a report. Further, it is important  to ensure that fellow employees do not indulge in victim-blaming  or shaming the complainant and appropriate steps must be taken to prevent this. And last but not the least, any kind of intimidation or pressure faced by the complainant must be investigated and acted upon.

Provide training to the Human Resources as well as members of the Internal Complaints Committee: It is important that the Human Resources as well as members of the Internal Complaints Committee are provided training with regard to handling complaints of sexual harassment as well as following all the processes as required by the law while investigating a complaint.  There are numerous nonprofit organizations that organize training sessions.

Conduct workshops and training sessions: In addition to investigating sexual harassment complaints, it is the role of the Internal Complaints Committee to organize various training workshops to sensitize the employees on issues around sexual harassment and the importance of creating a safe and secure working environment for all.

Workplace sexual harassment is no longer an unidentified challenge or obstacle to women at the workplace. But it’s time for organizations to identify the interventions to overcome this challenge.