Ungender Inc, a Delhi-based advisory firm, shows us how to tackle workplace harassment.
What makes it hard to address and talk about harassment? United against a common evil, many women have begun to voice their experiences of harassment in and out of the workplace. From Susan J Fowler’s blog about Uber, to complaints against several of the Valley’s male leaders such as Dave McClure and Chris Sacca, harassment is an issue that seems to be spoken about when it’s already too late. Even while most companies have the resources, there seems to be uncertainty when it comes to resolving issues of workplace harassment. So, what should startups or smaller companies do?
Answering these questions, Ungender, a Delhi-based advisory firm, seeks to improve diversity and inclusion within the workplace in accordance with existing laws. Focusing on issues of sexual harassment and maternity discrimination, they help interpret complex laws, educate stakeholders, and provide insights on workplace interventions. Founders Pallavi Pareek and Esha Shekhar met through common friends at a work event. While Esha is a corporate litigator, Pallavi studied computer science and has a master’s in change management. The two women work together to promote inclusivity through legal compliance.
YourStory asked Ungender how they would solve common workplace harassment situations, and here’s what they had to say.
Receptionists, drivers, and delivery folks are just some examples of support staff that are often associated with workplaces. Ungender cleared the air stating that they do come under the definition of employees. Anyone associated with the workplace in any capacity, whether full-time, part-time, contractual, or even as an intern, is considered an employee.
Pallavi and Esha tell us that while it is easy to identify who is to be classified as an employee, “the changing scene of employee engagement and workplaces has made this complex.” They further discuss the importance of the top management understanding their obligation to ensure the safety of their employees, particularly women. “If a woman takes a seat in a co-working space and is sexually harassed, who will she approach? The authority needs to be defined by the co-working space.” Ensuring safety to all employees, irrespective of their job title, cultivates a good company climate.
A common story of workplace harassment is that of a superior being interested in a subordinate, with the latter becoming the recipient of unwarranted advances and/or gifts. The subordinate then goes to HR and they don’t handle the situation because the superior may be the CEO or COO of the company. Now, what should the subordinate do?
Ungender states that HR is no longer required to handle matters of sexual harassment. These “matters will and can only be handled by the internal complaints committee (ICC) and no one else.” However, when harassment involves a senior executive such as a CEO, the executive may influence decisions made by the ICC. Due to this fact, these matters “are NOT to be undertaken by ICCs and instead are referred to local complaints committees (LCCs). LCCs are independent bodies assigned to look into incidents and investigations of sexual harassment brought by women in workplaces against the head of a workplace.”
Even while there is a system to battle harassment against power, several LCCs constituted by State governments are still not developed. Ungender has been filing appeals throughout the country to “study the status of LCC formation and district officer appointment.” They are working endlessly to ensure that the guidelines of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act, 2013 are enforced.
Company culture, according to Wikipedia, “encompasses values and behaviours that contribute to the environment of an organisation.” What happens when the company environment turns hostile with crude jokes, insults, and jibes? With no formal complaints, there are still ways for a company to address the existing culture.
Ungender recognises that every organisation is unique with industry dynamics, leadership, and their stages of development. No one solution can apply to every organisation. With this said, Ungender talks of starting a diagnosis and assessing the current cultural climate of an organisation. After gathering results from the assessment, they can identify where the company should focus.
Some of these issues could revolve around top management, processes or policies, or hiring strategies. They state, “It gets more complex when elements of the organisation are in conflict with the other.” This could be if the hiring philosophy of having more women in the workplace is not relayed to the actual hiring managers. There may be miscommunication between the hiring managers and upper management. The company should assess the company climate, and then form their unique solution.
As more women speak out on instances of workplace or sexual harassment, it is essential that an organisation trains its employees on how to make a formal complaint. Companies must work towards effectively sensitising and teaching employees this. In many companies, such as Uber or Ola, employees work remotely and engage with team members or HR only virtually. Such companies require different strategies of communication as their remote employees may find filing or communicating grievances difficult or even impossible. Similar to companies, Ungender believes employees with different language and technology proficiencies require separate training for complaints processes. There need to be multiple communication strategies from emails to physical notices at several places where there is high visibility. This must involve regular and repeated activities, both online and offline, for employees.
With identities such as caste and sexuality that are not often spoken about, harassment needs to be addressed at the “cultural roots of the organisation.” Even with the organisation’s code of conduct stating fair treatment and equality, it needs to be visible in the behaviour and culture of a company.
Ungender believes that in order to build a diverse and inclusive workplace, leaders of organisations must “identify the different elements of diversity existing in their organisation.” Diversity may exist in the workplace in the form of gender, culture, financial status, ability, and more. They believe that being aware of existing company diversity is essential to cultivating an inclusive initiative.
With incidents like an employee bullying another employee based on their sexuality or caste, there needs to be an “understanding of the social conditioning of the offenders.” Creating programmes to sensitise employees on identities and what is acceptable or not must be encouraged.
Ungender works relentlessly to provide solutions for inclusivity in a workspace.