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.

Business Today - - THE HUB #METOO - by Sonal Khetarpal and Ajita Shashid­har Il­lus­tra­tion by Ajay Thakuri

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.

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