Why startups need to focus on building a harassment-free workplace

3rd Jan 2019
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Growth, growth, more growth, fundraise rounds and maybe one or two pivots in between is the biggest agenda of the leadership in any startup in India.

Starting up begins with a quest for great ideas - it's all about execution, revenue and profit while culture takes a backseat. While things are moving such a breakneck pace no one has the time to focus on “low priority” and compliance with the POSH act falls in that bracket.

One would argue that startups require more focus on these guidelines for three reasons - there is a large young workforce working in the startup ecosystem, secondly, the long working hours can go up to more than 100 hours a week, and hence the lines between personal and professional are often blurred.

Need for an impartial committee

The key decision makers in a startup are the early employees who are very close to the founders. People who have been harassed would not feel comfortable raising an issue against someone from the early team as they might have a lot of “power” in the company. This makes it very important to have an impartial and mature committee that will not brush these complaints under the carpet.

Decorum and language

In a high-pressure startup environment, people freely use unparliamentary language in meetings and gathering. Over a period of time, they lose the sensitivity that can make other colleagues uncomfortable.

Work-life balance

In an environment where people are working more than 80 hours in a week, many of them hang out with each other. What most startup employees don’t realise that even if they say/do something with another employee outside the office premises, it would still be a violation of POSH.

Relationships at work

Since a majority of startup employees are young, there are chances of many workplace relationships. But many employees do not realise that someone who is junior will feel pressurised to say yes if a senior member asks her out on a date, etc. It is possible that both parties may be of a similar age group but this could still be in violation of POSH if one of them is in the same reporting chain.

Gender disparity

Sensitisation to gender is essential to promote a healthy work culture. Moreover, women are also expected to `be cool' with what was being said and done. It is easy for men to pass lewd statements as jokes. If a woman disapproved of them, they are called "prudes" who don't fit into the startup culture.

Laws might be on paper

There are a few startups, which have POSH guidelines in order, but they these are not put into practice. The Internal Complaints Committee might just exist on paper and not in spirit. In some cases, employees are not aware of the existence of a POSH committee and guidelines are not shared with employees.

In the light of the #Metoo movement, the moment of truth has arrived for many of those who have exerted their position of power — real or perceived — to sexually assault, abuse, harass, and persecute women. Maybe it is time startups begin to invest time in training their employees and managers on these guidelines to make a difference.

What constitutes sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment includes any one or more of the following unwelcome acts or behaviour (whether directly or by implication), namely,

Physical harassment, which includes:

  • Physical contact and advances
  • Intentional touching, pinching, grabbing, fondling, patting, brushing against another’s a body
  • Sexual assault
  • Any physical conduct which is unwelcome

Verbal harassment, which includes:

  •  A demand or request for sexual favours over promises related to employment such as work conditions, promotion, and increments. This is known as “quid pro quo” sexual harassment.
  • Gesture-based harassment - sexually coloured remarks
  • Making direct or indirect sexually suggestive comments, threats, slurs, sexual propositions
  • Sexual jokes or teasing, misogynist humour, sexually coloured gender specific jokes

Written or graphic harassment, which includes:

  • Showing pornography, and
  • The display of pornographic material
  • Written material that is sexual in nature such as a letter or notes containing a sexual comment
  • Leering or staring at another’s body and/or sexually suggested gesturing
  • Displaying sexually visual material such as pinups, cartoons, graffiti, computer programmes, catalogues of a sexual nature
  • Sexual messages or images sent via text/e-mails which may be perceived by the recipient as creating a hostile work environment

All such conducts become sexual harassment - whether textual, graphics or electronic or by any other actions, which may contain - implied or explicit promise of preferential treatment in aggrieved woman’s employment; or an implied or explicit threat of detrimental treatment in that aggrieved woman’s employment; the conduct interferes with an employee's work or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment; or humiliating treatment that is likely to affect health and safety.

It is the impact or effect of the behaviour on the recipient and not the intent of the offender that is critical in an assessment of such issues/cases. If the behaviour can be reasonably perceived as offensive or intimidating by the persons receiving it, it should be stopped. As such, all employees have a responsibility to communicate clearly to colleagues about behaviour that may be offensive and ask that it be discontinued.

Examples of situations in startups

  • Using gender-related swear words is commonplace in bays, meeting rooms, tea, coffee breakout areas. This creates a humiliating and offensive work environment for the affected gender.
  • Sharing sexual coloured gender specific jokes in common WhatsApp groups. Almost every team or function has these groups now and people should be sensitive regarding the content.
  • Use of unparliamentary language by the supervisor in a team meeting when a project does not go as planned, such scenarios are aplenty in startups as the business targets are aggressive.
  • Since the average age is below 28 years in most startups, a majority of the workforce does not have the relevant corporate exposure, hence they have seldom attended any POSH training programmes. They are also at an age where they are looking forward to matrimonial alliances/settling down with their life partners. While proposing to a lady in the office may be okay but persisting after she declines the offer is not and that amounts to sexual harassment at the workplace.
  • Should there be any kind of romantic relationship among employees, such relationships could sometime lead to conflicts of interest at work. Hence, in the best interests of all concerned, in case of any such relationship, particularly between a member of management or other supervisory employee and his or her staff (an employee who reports directly or indirectly to that person); the involved parties should notify the management of the company so that the reporting chain can be altered to ensure that no direct or indirect reporting relationship continues.

Role of the HR department

  • Conduct necessary communication and training across the company, with respect to sexual harassment at the workplace. Especially training the managers first!
  • Ensure this policy is communicated, explained and handed over at the time of induction of every employee.
  • Guide the employee as to the proper procedure for registering the complaint.

Startup founders/management

  • Be willing to invest in compliance right away!
  • Provide appropriate working conditions in respect of work and ensure there is no hostile environment in the workplace.
  • When approached by an employee for counsel, avoid making a quick judgement as to what is right or wrong and hold back advice/opinion.
  • Since it is difficult for victims of harassment to come forward with their complaints; do not cross-question the individual or give the impression of doubting the authenticity of his / her report.
  • Ensure there no retaliation or retribution happens at the workplace where the supposed action has taken place.

(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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