Sexual harassment at the workplace: Lessons learned about how to do things right

This week, everyone’s talking about workplace sexual harassment. And we’re also talking about compliance with the law—both the Vishaka guidelines and the new April 2013 law, which are similar but quite different from each other.

We have had the privilege of working with organizations in the private and the public sector on this question and while we have a very realistic sense of the levels of awareness about this issue and the law, and how rare compliance is, we are also able to be very optimistic because of the people we work with.

About a year ago, the HR person at a firm that does aeronautical design got in touch with us to inquire about gender sensitization workshops. We were drowning in campaign work and as we tried to coordinate schedules more than six months slipped away. When we had all but forgotten about this exchange, the MD of the company got in touch. From there, things moved quickly because the timing was much better for all concerned.

We were in for a wonderful surprise. The team we were working with had a much bigger vision than just writing a policy, forming a committee and checking off the compliance box. As the MD kept saying, they wanted to make the committee redundant and the way to do this was to create and sustain a work culture based on equality and mutual respect.

Together, we created an action plan. We would start with short training workshops on workplace sexual harassment—what it is, how the law defines it, how to respond to it and responsibilities at the corporate and individual level. We would help the company put together a policy in conformity with Indian law and to constitute an Internal Complaints Committee. We would also work with a self-selected group of employees who wanted to do awareness work on gender issues. But that was not enough—they also asked us to facilitate the beginnings of a conversation on interpersonal relations in a time of diversity and rapid change. Moreover, the company plans on refresher activities and ways to get everyone to rededicate themselves to these values every year.

We really admire the commitment this company is making to creating a more gender-equitable workplace. Their efforts pre-dated the new law; even pre-dated the Delhi gang-rape which for so many was the first time they had given gender violence any thought. Their efforts excluded no one—the MD and the newest employee attended training on an equal footing. And every single person in the company was required to attend. There is active interest in going further and following up, and willingness to take ownership of the ideas and the process.

The good news is that just as we were working with this company, another one from a completely different industry called us to talk about the same things. When we mentioned the kinds of work we were doing here, they became more expansive and talked about broader issues. Most people think it is enough to train the HR people in a company, but what the management teams in both these companies understand instinctively is that for an idea, a new value system, to take root and be shared, everyone–every single person–needs to be a part of (and party to) the change.

When organizations invite NGOs in, they graciously keep referring to our domain expertise. The truth is, and we try to say it as much as we can, that we are all learning and learning from each other. No one enters into any work with domain expertise, just with a will to do one’s best and a promise to learn as much as one can towards that end. We have reflected on what we have learned before, but if I were now to update this list it would include the following.

  1. It is not enough to set up a policy and committee, although setting them up is a vast improvement on not setting them up.
  2. While the law mandates a policy, a committee and awareness training now, that training has to go beyond a perfunctory session with HR people and it has to be ongoing.
  3. The most important component might well be the management and owners’ commitment to the issue—which becomes evident in their willingness to put time and resources into this work; which becomes evident in their willingness to cooperate with and support the work of the Internal Complaints Committee without diminishing their autonomy. This commitment and support should also extend to situations where the Committee and/or its members are personally attacked for their work.

In many ways, the new law is harder to implement than the Vishaka Guidelines, whose clarity and simplicity meant that compliance was first and foremost about the spirit of their provisions rather than their letter. It becomes all the more important that those working on workplace sexual harassment approach the process of change holistically—looking at attitudes, manners and relationships as much as anything else. Given our work experience in the last year, we now believe this is actually a feasible action plan. For this learning and the hope that it gives us, we are very grateful to the partners that we have in this work.

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

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: