The ugly truth behind workplace harassment

After the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment at the workplace buffeted social media in the past weeks, a survey revealed that nearly one in three individuals have either faced it or knows someone in their family who did, and every second victim faced physical advances by the perpetrator. However, nearly 80 per cent said they had not reported the cases to the company leadership or HR.In an online poll of 15,000 members across the country by LocalCircles, 32 per cent said that they or one of their family members have experienced or observed sexual harassment at the work place. Of the 15,000 respondents, 6,137 were women and each question had about 7,000 respondents.Half of the respondents who said they or someone in their family faced harassment cited that the episode took place at work during regular office hours, while 19 per cent said it occurred after hours at the workplace. This means that 69 per cent of the cases took place on the work premises.The offences ranged from physical harassment, sexual advances and sexually-coloured remarks, with 50 per cent of those who have faced such cases citing physical advances.

The survey showed that 78 per cent of the people who had faced such sexual harassment did not report to the company HR, which shows a flawed redressal system despite the Vishakha Guidelines and the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 having brought in rules regarding the issue, rights lawyers and HR specialists said. The 2013 Act mandates an internal complaints committee in every office or branch with more than 10 employees. “Most internal committees are not used enough because women fear being subjected to backlash discrimination when they take up the complaint, and a lot of times, they fear the committee will be biased towards the more powerful person,” said Supreme Court lawyer Karuna Nundy, who helped frame anti-rape and sexual harassment laws in the country. According to lawyers who worked on sexual harassment cases, including at the workplace, many cases involve a superior harassing a junior employee.

“More often than not, the power dynamics at the workplace leads to employees being harassed by their superiors and bosses,” said Flavia Agnes, a gender rights lawyer and cofounder of Majlis. Agnes and her colleagues have been part of several internal complaints committees at companies.“But most cases are not referred to the HR. The main issue is that most people are not aware of what is inappropriate behavior, such as passing comments on someone’s attire or making lewd jokes,” she said. The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 had specified any unwelcome behaviour of sexual nature, sexually coloured remarks, demanding sexual favours as sexual harassment.

“In the poll asking respondents whether they had faced sexual harassment at the workplace, 23 per cent said ‘Can’t Say’, which we realised was the lack of understanding of what constitutes sexual harassment,” said Sachin Taparia, cofounder of LocalCircles.The #MeToo movement has spurred scores of women to come out and share their experiences in the past, which they had either tried to address at the time or not raised at all. Sairee Chahal, founder of Sheroes, a community platform for women in the workforce, said the company’s helpline for women’s workplace issues is now getting double the number of calls every day with more than 100 calls solely about sexual harassment at the workplace.

“These are old cases, as have been the ones on #MeToo, and women are now looking to close the loop,” Chahal said.Even when cases do reach the HR and the committee, many complainants are asked to withdraw, while some result in transfer or voluntary resignation by the perpetrator without any explicit reason cited, said Kamal Karanth, cofounder of recruiting firm Xpheno.“I have never seen any company make an example of a sexual offender to set a deterrent for such actions,” he said. Several companies ET reached out to said they conduct regular workshops on sexual harassment at the workplace, including training as well as during orientation.“We have always had zero tolerance for sexual harassment. Our HR team does regular POSH training for all employees. This policy has been in place much before the #metoo campaign started,” said Sameer Nigam, CEO, PhonePe. “But steps by companies should not be restricted to just a tick box on an HR form,” Nundy said. “Company leadership needs to weed out sexual harassment, even in subtle forms, and take it seriously, or it will expose them to serious civil and criminal liabilities.”