Sexual harassment at the workplace: Lessons learned about the way things work

For about a year now, we have been working in the area of workplace sexual harassment. This has taken three forms: participating in the complaints committee process; running short workshops upon request and organizing larger campaign-time programmes to raise awareness. As usual, we stumbled into this work, responding to a need, and have been learning as we’ve gone along.

The complaints committee work has taught me a lot of things I hadn’t really thought about or read or come across before. Given how little people have written about this issue and the process of complaints and redressal, I have wanted to share my learning in some form. Please note, these are just my observations, open to further learning or correction. I share these in the spirit of a journal entry.

When organizations set up WSH committees, they start out by saying there are no cases (we are so special, so lucky!). Well, there are no cases because there is no known redressal process. But the Vishakha guidelines and the new law require companies to make known their policy, their process and the composition of their complaints committee. Cases first come sporadically. Then, as word gets out that a committee is serious and people hear of completed enquiries and action taken, more cases come in. In this phase, several are patently false complaints or cases where the nature of the committee’s work is not understood. This is an important phase for the organization and the employees to learn more about the issue and the committee’s report could be instructive in spelling out the definition of this form of workplace violence.

What is very clear, in case after case, is that no one seems to know exactly what constitutes sexual harassment at the workplace. Is it a particular kind of harassment, harassment directed at women or harassment of any sort experienced by a woman? Sometimes complainants are ignorant, and we learn that while their actual complaint may not fit the legal definition, other experiences do. In that case, we can at best flag those other experiences in some way. Sometimes, the accused and co-workers do not know what kind of behaviour constitutes sexual harassment. We have also seen this lack of clarity on the part of the organisation which might forward all complaints by women to the sexual harassment complaints committee. I am beginning to think training to introduce what sexual harassment is, should be mandatory for any working person.

It’s not just the legal definition that matters in sexual harassment cases; knowing where lines are to be drawn also matters in a time of rapid change in the workplace and in society. Having often grown up in virtual segregation, young men and women have to learn ways to interact with each other in college and the workplace. What is acceptable behaviour and what is not, is something that both sides have to learn. For men, this might involve learning how to respect physical space (you cannot move your chair close to hers without it feeling like harassment), or that when you discuss a woman (client or colleague) sexually in front of other women, they read it (rightly) not as your opinion but as misogynistic violence. For women, it is learning what their rights are in a workplace, and it is also learning to rightly code a reprimand for poor performance as different from a sexual proposition or insult. The rarity of good working environments for women (starting from the absence of decent, safe women’s toilets) express gender discrimination in so many ways that it is hard not to read everything as sexual harassment or harassment based on gender discrimination. But it is important to learn the difference in order that the gravity of the offence of workplace sexual harassment is not undermined by misfiled charges. Moreover, where it is hard for complainants to continue in the same office once they have filed charges, it is that much more difficult if the committee finds the complaint unfounded or frivolous.

In each and every case, the hearing process reveals office skeletons. Ledgers misplaced, accounts that have been cooked, attendance that has been faked, informal working arrangements that violate the rules, mishandled procedures… the whole gamut of workplace improprieties are revealed as each person speaks to the committee. These are beyond the scope of a sexual harassment committee and we can only flag these discoveries as a postscript. The larger point is that just as poor governance in a state creates a climate where women and sexual minorities are more vulnerable to violence; a poorly run organization where other systems are malfunctioning creates a facilitating environment for sexual harassment. This is an important point for senior management people to note: the incident may be in a very small team of your large organization but when the other skeletons tumble out, the buck stops at the top. Not all the gender diversity and equality consultants can fix the rot in the system at this stage.

One thing that should have been obvious but that I did not really think about is the role that internal politics can play. I don’t mean interpersonal politics, which are obviously the heart of any such case, but the politics of trade unions and communal and caste relations in small places or the patron-client networks that run up and down an organization’s hierarchy. In small towns, work relationships are also embedded in familial, local and communal interactions and listening to testimonies, sooner or later, everything seems to be grist to the mill. This makes for very painful listening but also for stories where what happened in the context of work is only a small part of a much larger saga—most of which is germane to the complaint but outside the purview of the committee’s work.

One consequence of delays in hearing cases is that more ledgers are misplaced, of course! Another practical consequence is that given a committee of three-five individuals of whom one is an outsider (by law), it is possible that any one of them has moved away. It is always desirable to have the same committee members through the hearings of a single case. Delay also allows for frantic networking across the organizational hierarchy, lobbying for sympathy and support. Solidarities fray; for instance, those who signed on in support of the complainant start to “forget” details or even to deny knowledge of their signatures being on a certain document. Or they might genuinely start to forget. In the regrouping that can follow—after all both complainant and accused are colleagues—it can get very hard to get at what actually happened. While complaints committees are not courts, a delay even in their work also results in justice not being done.

I want to write about the role that the NGO/outside member plays in the complaints process. It is an essential one in that the committee cannot be constituted without such a member; however, it is really hard for people to find such persons who will serve. First, this is because most NGOs (including us) are microscopically small teams for whom finding a suitable person who can also spare the time is really hard. If the hearing is out of town, it is not just the day of the hearing that is lost but also time lost in travel. And if like us, everyone volunteers, then they also have to make the time in their livelihood schedule. Second, there is a sense that maybe one is not competent to serve on such a technical committee. After all, there is no training on how to be an NGO/outside member, and everyone is not a lawyer. Third, reimbursements apart, there is always some cost incurred by the NGO—and with scarce resources, another organization’s compliance with legal directives is not a high priority.  One way around this is to empanel several NGOs so in each geographical area, you have a local person, but this is easier said than done.

Finally, I have begun to wonder why so much of the discussion around workplace sexual harassment centres around white collar, corporate workplaces when it was a rural social worker’s complaint that laid the foundation for the law and when most of India still works in non-white collar, urban settings. Are we thinking about and training enough in those spaces? I think not.

About Swarna Rajagopalan
I am a political scientist by training with a special interest in security studies.

2 Responses to Sexual harassment at the workplace: Lessons learned about the way things work

  1. Ammu Joseph says:

    Very thoughtful and thought-provoking reflections which I hope will be widely read, discussed and acted upon – thanks!

  2. Pingback: #India – Download the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act #Vaw | kracktivist

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