All you need to know about sexual harassment at the workplace

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Most discussions on sexual harassment at the workplace tend to veer around false complaints than genuine cases of harassment. But the reality is that there is more to worry about under-reporting than the misuse of the law.

There has been a lot of discussions lately on the topic of sexual harassment at the workplace. What exactly is sexual harassment? Often, the term is subjected to different interpretations. Some believe that it is better not to interact with female colleagues so that one does not get embroiled in a sexual harassment complaint. The reality of sexual harassment instances at the workplace is that there is more to worry about under-reporting, than people misusing the law.

Often, the term is subjected to different interpretations. Some believe that it is better not to interact with female colleagues so that one does not get embroiled in a sexual harassment complaint. The reality of sexual harassment instances at the workplace is that there is more to worry about under-reporting than people misusing the law.

The reality of sexual harassment instances at the workplace is that there is more to worry about under-reporting than people misusing the law.

Sexual harassment is a serious problem in the workplace and one that receives a lot of negative attention. In my experience, people talk more about false complaints than genuine cases of sexual harassment. India is a late entrant in formalising sexual harassment as a penal offence punishable with imprisonment and or penalty. In 1997, in the landmark

In 1997, in the landmark judgment on Vishakha vs State of Rajasthan, the Supreme Court of India defined sexual harassment at the workplace, pronounced preventive, prohibitory and redressal measures, and gave directives towards a legislative mandate to the guidelines proposed.

The reality of sexual harassment instances at the workplace is that there is more to worry about under-reporting than people misusing the law.

In 2013, substantial changes were made in the way sexual harassment was viewed within the criminal justice system in India. The Criminal Law Amendment Act of 2013, which commenced on April 3, 2013, included Section 354A that defined sexual harassment. Section 354A of the Indian Penal Code prescribes a penalty of three years imprisonment with or without fine.

The same definition is given in the law enacted specifically for Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention Prohibition and Redressal) Act 2013.

CountryYear of enactment
USAustraliaChinaJapanHong KongIndiaIndonesiaKoreaMalaysiaNew ZealandThe PhilippinesTaiwanVietnam197619841995/20051972/200719951997/20131999/2003/20111997/1999201220001974/199520022007/2013
Israel1998
Switzerland1995
United Kingdom1975/1986
Denmark2005

Definition of sexual harassment

Section 2(n) of the Sexual Harassment of Women (Prevention Prohibition and Redressal) Act 2013 states sexual harassment includes any one or more of the following unwelcome acts or behaviour (whether directly or by implication) namely:

  1. Physical contact and advances; or
  2. A demand or request for sexual favours; or
  3. Making sexually coloured remarks; or
  4. Showing pornography; or
  5. Any other unwelcome physical, verbal, or non-verbal conduct of sexual nature.

‘Unwelcome’ is the operative word in the definition, any aforementioned act which is unwelcome to the recipient, whether expressed or not, would amount to sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment at the workplace can occur in two ways: Quid pro quo and hostile work environment.

Quid pro quo refers to this for that. If you oblige Y, I would give you X and vice versa. Hostile work environment refers to “sexual conduct that unreasonably interferes with an individual’s job performance or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive working environment”.

There are four forms of sexual harassment at the workplace: verbal, visual, physical, and psychological. Any act implied or explicitly expressed in the aforementioned forms with sexual undertones can constitute an act of sexual harassment.

This definition of sexual harassment has to be read along with Section 3 of the 2013 Act which states that no woman shall be subjected to sexual harassment at any workplace. There cannot be implied or explicit promise/threat, preferential/detrimental treatment or hostile work environment for women; or humiliating treatment that is likely to affect a woman’s health or safety.

Some instances of sexual harassment

Let us see some typical sexual harassment scenarios. Comments about appearance, leering, jokes with sexual undertones, intrusive questioning on personal matters, spreading rumours, inappropriate conduct of a sexual nature, unwanted touching, etc, all fall under sexual harassment.

Often, people hesitate to report cases of sexual harassment as they feel ashamed, fear retaliation, lack trust in the system, worry about confidentiality and the fact that they may lose their jobs.

Rachana faces regular comments from her co-workers with regard to her sleeveless dresses and trousers. She finds it extremely annoying to work at a place where she constantly faces indirect verbal reprimands about her ‘revealing’ ‘non-conventional’ dressing style.

Madhu is irritated because her boss constantly puts his hands on her shoulder whenever he is near her. He is an extremely supportive boss and gives her ample opportunities to work on new projects. Although the career exposure is great, Madhu cringes at the thought of going near her superior.

Sapna is a senior manager and is well-known for her project management skills. Lately, she has been having a hard time at the office as a newly-joined colleague has been constantly starting at her. This is affecting her work. Anna works in the accounts department of a distribution firm. Her work sometimes requires her to stay late at night. Her manager is quite supportive and often waits for her to finish work and, sometimes offers to drop her home. A couple of times, she felt it odd when he brushed his hands against her body. She ignored it thinking it was accidental. When she did react, he apologised and brushed it, saying it was unintentional. She does not want to work late anymore but is being pressured to do so by her manager. She finds it hard to confront him as he is a respected employee in the company.

The most significant aspect of Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention Prohibition and Redressal) Act 2013 is that with this law there was a paradigm shift in the way employers were made liable for the breach of law by its employees. Up until the enactment of this law, vicarious liability on sexual harassment at the workplace was non-existent.

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory)

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