All you need to know about anti-sexual harassment lawsAshwini Vittalachar
In an effort to enable a safe and inclusive workplace for women, the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 and the rules therein (POSH Laws) were implemented.
Since the POSH Laws are meant to protect every possible working woman and give her the means to seek redressal on issues of workplace harassment, the scope of this law is very wide.
The POSH Laws prescribe multiple compliances on every employer, and we will help you deconstruct the same!
At the outset, you may wonder whether these laws apply to you/your organisation. The guiding principles of this law are to ensure that any woman who walks into any organisation has a forum to seek redressal when faced with an issue of sexual harassment.
Accordingly, every person running an organisation (i.e., any person responsible for the management, supervision, and control of the workplace and management), immaterial of the sector of operations, number of persons employed and the nature of business (profitable versus non-profit) must comply with POSH laws.
The nature of compliances required under the POSH laws can be broadly categorised into three buckets – (a) mechanisms for redressal of sexual harassment; (b) prevention/prohibition-related; and (c) monitoring compliance.
Mechanisms for redressal
One of the significant measures mandated by the POSH laws is setting up of a separate committee to exclusively deal with complaints of sexual harassment at workplace.
In a workplace that has more than 10 employees (i.e., persons associated with the organisation in any possible capacity), such a committee must be set up internally and is known as the Internal Complaints Committee (ICC). In all other organisations that employ less than 10 employees, complaints of sexual harassment must be made to the local complaints committee that the district magistrate or the district collector may have set up at each district level.
It is important to note that the ICC must be set up at each of the offices, branches or administrative units. A minimum of four members are needed to form the ICC, and the composition should include a senior woman employee employed at the workplace/or belonging to any other organisation if the workplace does not have a senior woman employee and two employees at the workplace having experience in social work.
One of the members must also be externally appointed. An employer must choose someone who is associated with an NGO, is a social worker, or someone who is familiar with issues/laws relating to sexual harassment.
The ICC, even though an internal one, will need to function in the same manner as a civil court while dealing with complaints of sexual harassment at workplace. Hence choosing the right members, especially external, makes a significant difference.
As a first step, every organisation must adopt an anti-sexual harassment policy. The policy is meant to highlight the organisation’s zero-tolerance stance in so far as sexual harassment is concerned. In order to be effective, some of the key aspects that must be elucidated in the policy are – who must comply with the policy; what constitutes sexual harassment, what are the dos and don’ts when dealing with sexual harassment at workplace, and of course, who should be approached in case a person has a complaint. The policy will be ineffective if employees are not aware of the ICC / members of ICC who need to be approached in case of a complaint. It is necessary to communicate the same to all employees effectively.
Needless to say, the strength of any law is in its enforcement, and as an employer, the policies that you may put in place at your workplace will be ineffective if you do not enforce the same. The POSH laws provide for various ways to further strengthen reinforce such policies.
One of the key methods prescribed is training. Workplace culture in India is in many ways evolving. Consequently, boundaries of professional conduct are sometimes unclear, especially in close-knit workgroups. The best way to prevent your workplace from becoming a hostile work environment is by emphasizing these boundaries.
In this regard, the POSH laws mandate every employer to train his employees about workplace sexual harassment by conducting awareness programmes and workshops so that employees are sensitised about boundaries of acceptable and unacceptable behaviour, and instances of unwelcome conduct are minimised.
Every employer must file an annual return setting out status and details of compliance with the POSH laws. This annual return must be filed each calendar year and will need to be submitted to the district officer notified in each state. In many states, the deputy commissioner of labour has been notified as the district officer.
With these external filings, it is possible to externally monitor the status and extent of compliance by each organisation. Furthermore, recently the Ministry of Women and Child Development, Government of India (Ministry), has launched the Sexual Harassment Electronic Box (SHe Box) Online Complaint Management System. It is possible for any employee to make an online complaint of sexual harassment at workplace with the help of SHe Box. Through SHe Box, the Ministry hopes to enable aggrieved women to be given a platform to interact with the Ministry and to seek assured/timely response. With this, it is also possible for the Ministry to closely monitor the status and progress on complaints of sexual harassment, and call out delinquent employers.
The lawmakers have taken firm steps in combating workplace harassment, and the enforcement machinery is not far behind either. In the recent years, the courts have decided on various issues relating to the interpretation and implementation of POSH laws, with a view to further the objective of the laws and ensure a safe and positive workplace for women.
An inclusive work environment that is respectful to both men and women will become one of the important yardsticks for measuring a successful workplace in the coming years, and your role as an employer in creating and fostering such a workplace cannot be undermined!
This burden can be best discharged by constituting an ICC that is balanced. Choosing an external member who is proactive, approachable and knowledgeable can make all the difference in negotiating a win-win in difficult situations! They not only bring in neutrality in conflict resolution, but can also help you navigate steadily through the enquiry process.
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)