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Countering the Culture of Silence in Sexual Harassment

Antony Alex
2nd Feb 2019
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Last year showed us that India’s working women are a force to be reckoned with. The #MeToo movement raised a lot of questions about the treatment of women at work and showed how discriminatory and harmful toxic masculinity has been for women professionals. How can companies address these issues and ensure a safe environment?

The Prevention of Sexual harassment Act, 2013 (“POSH Act”) has now been in force for more than 5 years. However, in many instances, the aggrieved woman doesn’t complain against the harasser, simply because of the culture of silence that exists within many organisations. Fear of retaliation is one of the primary obstacles in the minds of those who have been harassed. The POSH Act clearly prohibits retaliation through the creation of a hostile work environment, detrimental treatment in employment or threat to employment status. So, what do corporates need to do to ensure that women speak out when they are sexually harassed? Here are four steps that every organisation should take to counter the culture of silence.

Awareness 

As mandated by law, corporates need to proactively create awareness and educate all employees about the POSH Act and the fact that women are protected at the workplace – both from sexual harassment as well as retaliation. In many organisations, there is very little awareness about the POSH Act and the fact that it prohibits retaliation.

A Zero Tolerance Culture

Consciously or otherwise, many organisations have a culture that’s supportive of sexual harassment at the workplace. This is true not just for India but many global brands, who have found themselves in hot water, where senior executives accused of sexual harassment have been let off lightly or have indulged in inappropriate behaviour because they knew that the organisation wouldn’t take a strong stand against that kind of behaviour. Any culture that doesn’t frown upon gender insensitive behaviour is one that’s likely to be a breeding ground for sexual predators.

Openness 

Organisations that have a culture of transparency and openness tend to have lesser instances of sexual harassment – as employees feel comfortable in speaking up against predatory behaviour.

 An Empowered Internal Committee (IC) 

Employees must understand that cases of sexual harassment will be dealt with in a fair, transparent and just manner. An organisation needs to choose members of the IC very carefully – senior and respected employees with a sense of fairness are ideal candidates to be appointed to the IC. An experienced external member, who will bring expertise and a lack of bias, is an equally important cog in the IC wheel. The IC performs a quasi-judicial function and cannot dispense justice in any manner it deems fit. It has to follow principles of natural justice and has to be properly trained in critical functions such as evidence appreciation, investigation techniques, order writing, etc.

The management of a company shouldn’t appoint malleable IC members – with the intention of managing the outcome of sexual harassment cases. This can backfire on the company as employees will quickly lose faith and possibly not approach the IC when they are being sexually harassed. Rather, the preference would be to go public via social media, file a criminal complaint or just quit the organisation.  None are desirable outcomes for an organisation.  Hence, the credibility of the IC is extremely important in providing employees with the comfort that irrespective of the seniority of the individuals involved in a matter, the IC shall impartially hear both parties and carefully consider the evidence before passing an order.

Thus, it’s clear that organisations with an open and transparent culture along with a well-trained and empowered IC, can counter the culture of silence with respect to sexual harassment at the workplace.

(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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