THE DEVIL IN THE ROOM
As the wave of #MeToo transcends over India Inc., companies will have to get their act together to provide a safe and secure work environment to all employees.
ATAJ HOTELS employee’s accusation of sexual harassment in 2015 against the then MD of the company, Rakesh Sarna, was probably the first time in the recent past, when a woman employee of a company came out in the open and complained about her senior’s inappropriate gestures towards her. The senior management at the Tata Group (then headed by Cyrus Mistry) had commissioned an enquiry against Sarna, which ultimately gave him a clean chit. The unhappy employee put in her papers saying that she no longer felt comfortable working in the Tata Group. Sarna continued in the organisation till the exit of Mistry. He quit citing personal reasons in 2017 after his term ended. Whether the complaint played a role in this is not known.
The #MeToo movement where more and more women are mustering courage to speak about sexual harassment at their workplace, has led companies to take swift action. Tata Group, for example, has been more proactive with the recent complaint against Tata Motors Corporate Communications Head Suresh Rangarajan, by asking him to go on leave till the inquiry is completed. Advertising and communications conglomerate, Publicis India, fired Executive Creative Director Ishrath Nawaz on allegations of sexual misconduct. Yashraj Films sacked its senior executive, Ashish Patil, while film production company Phantom Films was dissolved as one of its founders, Vikas Bahl, was facing harassment charges.
There have been a few high-profile cases earlier too, but did not lead to a mass movement. A former employee of The Energy and Resources Institute (Teri) had alleged sexual harassment against former Executive Vice- Chairman R.K. Pachauri in 2016. A Delhi court has ordered framing charges against him.
A recent report says that Nifty companies have reported over 600 cases of sexual harassment complaints in the last one year. While IT company Wipro topped the chart with as many as 101 complaints, ICICI Bank was second with 99 complaints. But this is surely just the tip of the iceberg as a large number of women employees in corporate India are still not able to voice their concerns about harassment at their workplaces as they simply don’t feel comfortable doing so.
The question to be asked is how foolproof are the sexual harassment policies of corporate India? “Organisations need to re-draft their sexual harassment policies urgently,” says Saundarya Rajesh, Managing Director, Avtar Group, a human resources service organisation. She adds the sexual harassment policies in most companies have bare-bone descriptions. But more than policies, it is the overall work environment which doesn’t allow a woman employee to speak up, and that needs to change.
Fear of Alienation
One of the biggest reasons of women not speaking up in corporate circles, says Nirmala Menon, Founder and CEO of diversity consulting firm, Interweave, is the fear of retaliation. “Complainants are scared that the company will ask them to leave, fearing she is a troublemaker. It might not be as blatant but they fear that companies will start fault finding or label her a poor performer or not extend her contract,” she says. Isolation, she adds, is the biggest act of retaliation by companies, and this “ensures that the person quits eventually”.
Nandini Verma (name changed), a senior executive at a KPO for a USbased company, says that when she
reported to the HR manager about sexual comments made by her manager, she was kept out of projects even though she had won the best employee award thrice. “They started demoting me and gave reasons for not giving me an increment. The team also started talking behind me, saying I was a flirt. Eventually, I quit the job as my self-respect was more important,” she says. Often, teammates show solidarity with the perpetrator who may be senior in position because there is a fear of retaliation for witnesses too.
Menon says sexual harassment is also a form of power play in companies. “They assess the targets and see where they can ensure that she will not complain. And in case she does, they can say she is a poor performer, or create circumstances under which she calls it quits,” says Menon.
The PoSH Act
The Supreme Court has mandated that the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, popularly called Prevention of Sexual Harassment or PoSH Act, be followed. Clear guidelines have been laid regarding employers’ responsibility in addressing these issues at the workplace (see box). The Act’s definition of sexual harassment is broad and includes physical contact and advances, request for sexual favours, making sexually coloured remarks, showing pornography, and unwelcome physical, verbal or nonverbal conduct of sexual nature.
However, the understanding of sexual harassment is still limited to physical contact and advances, says Menon. No wonder the PoSH Act has made it mandatory for companies to organise training and awareness sessions on gender sensitisation and also what constitutes harassment since often the excuses given by the perpetrator are “I was misread”, “It was a joke” or “It wasn’t intentional”.
It must be understood that even a look, text, chat or gesture can be harassment.
“Sexual harassment is not only about the man’s intent but about the woman’s perception,” says
“SEXUAL HARASSMENT IS NOT ONLY ABOUT THE MAN’S INTENT BUT ALSO ABOUT THE WOMAN’S PERCEPTION OF IT” Sharanya G. Ranga Partner, Advaya Legal
THE #METOO MOVEMENT UNDER WHICH MANY WOMEN ARE SPEAKING ABOUT SEXUAL HARASSMENT AT THEIR WORKPLACE HAS ROCKED CORPORATE INDIA.