THE COSTS OF UN­SAFE WORK­PLACES

India Today - - INSIDE - By Amba Salelkar Amba Salelkar is a lawyer with the Equals Cen­tre for Pro­mo­tion of So­cial Jus­tice, Chennai

We’ve al­ways known that vic­tims bear the im­pact of sex­ual ha­rass­ment at the work­place. Some of them give up ca­reers to avoid a sit­u­a­tion of ha­rass­ment. Some costs are in­tan­gi­ble—loss of con­fi­dence, shame and ‘mindspace’. Over the past few weeks, we’ve seen women speak out on th­ese costs, but not enough has been heard yet on the costs es­tab­lish­ments bear. It’s not just that sex­ual preda­tors have been outed; com­pa­nies that har­boured th­ese men have also taken flak for, among other things, hir­ing peo­ple with­out do­ing back­ground checks be­yond “the old boys’ club”, not call­ing out bla­tant sex­ist be­hav­iour, and let­ting ‘open se­crets’ re­main se­crets. In some cases, they have va­can­cies to fill af­ter men have been asked to leave. In oth­ers, the en­tire struc­ture of the or­gan­i­sa­tion is in a sham­bles af­ter co-founders have been found to have ei­ther be­haved badly or abet­ted this be­hav­iour, by omis­sion in some cases.

A key fea­ture of this work en­vi­ron­ment has been the lack of re­dress mech­a­nisms an em­ployee is aware of, feels a sense of own­er­ship to­wards, and has con­fi­dence in. The Vishaka guide­lines made this manda­tory in 1997. All that the 2013 sex­ual ha­rass­ment law seems to have achieved is to make the in­sti­tu­tion of In­ter­nal Com­plaints Com­mit­tees a ‘com­pli­ance is­sue’. Heads have rolled, but women don’t nec­es­sar­ily feel safer at the work­place. If any­thing, the bar for what con­sti­tutes ‘sex­ual ha­rass­ment at the work­place’ has been set very high by in­stances that could even be called rape or as­sault. Al­ready eyes are be­ing rolled at ‘trivial’ in­stances, or in­stances where women have pur­port­edly con­sented to preda­tory be­hav­iour for ‘ben­e­fit’.

The 2013 sex­ual ha­rass­ment law is quite dif­fer­ent from crim­i­nal laws on vi­o­lence against women. For one thing, it recog­nises that con­sent is a grey area even at the work­place, and nods at the pos­si­bil­i­ties of ex­plicit or im­plicit prom­ise of pref­er­en­tial or detri­men­tal treat­ment in the or­gan­i­sa­tion. But the point is not whether a woman ac­cepted th­ese ad­vances; the real ques­tion is: can we have workspaces where women are not forced to make th­ese choices or risk con­se­quences?

Sex­ual ha­rass­ment laws are not so much about pun­ish­ing per­pe­tra­tors as they are about en­sur­ing a safe work­ing en­vi­ron­ment. Sex­ual ha­rass­ment is an oc­cu­pa­tional haz­ard for all women in any in­dus­try. Dalit, Adi­vasi, Bahu­jan women, and women with disabiliti­es, face even greater risks at the work­place sim­ply be­cause they face more bar­ri­ers in find­ing re­dres­sal. The di­ver­sity th­ese women bring to the or­gan­i­sa­tion is prob­a­bly worth more than any­thing the ‘rock­star’ with a ‘bad boy’ past might con­trib­ute. Hir­ing some­one with a ‘rep­u­ta­tion’ is a gam­ble that ex­tracts a heavy price: the amount of time wasted on mis­com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­cause women em­ploy­ees don’t want to see this per­son in his cabin; ac­counts lost be­cause of his preda­tory his­tory gone pub­lic; the lit­i­ga­tion a com­pany faces for fail­ing to take pre­ven­tive ac­tion. There are pub­lic costs too. Sex­ual ha­rass­ment at the work­place has been linked to psy­cho­log­i­cal dis­tress that could pre­cip­i­tate fu­ture psy­choso­cial dis­abil­ity.

Or­gan­i­sa­tions would do well to fa­cil­i­tate con­ver­sa­tions about prob­lem­atic be­hav­iour, of­fer­ing sup­port for col­leagues who’d like to ad­dress their own be­hav­iour, and as­sure vic­tims of sup­port if they raise is­sues. Both an ef­fec­tive ICC and a com­pany work cul­ture that does not en­able sex­ist and misog­y­nis­tic be­hav­iour have im­mense de­ter­rent value be­yond the fear of some­one’s screen­shots go­ing pub­lic. A more di­verse rep­re­sen­ta­tion and in­volve­ment of women in hir­ing, re­cruit­ing and men­tor­ing em­ploy­ees will be much more im­pact­ful than a yearly train­ing ses­sion. As for hor­i­zon­tal re­cruit­ing, hope­fully, the very male no­tion of ‘poaching’ tal­ent will be ac­com­pa­nied by thought­ful con­sid­er­a­tion of the per­son’s an­tecedents and ob­ser­va­tion of the per­son’s im­pact on the work­ing en­vi­ron­ment.

It’s time to raise the costs of bad be­hav­iour and make it un­af­ford­able for the per­pe­tra­tors and the or­gan­i­sa­tions that em­ploy them.

Not just vic­tims, or­gan­i­sa­tions too pay a price for hir­ing peo­ple with a ‘rep­u­ta­tion’: los­ing peo­ple and ac­counts, and fac­ing lit­i­ga­tion—and flak for heed­less re­cruit­ment

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