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.

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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.

Comment: Should a child rapist get a reduced sentence…

…because he was living away from home and therefore ‘lost control’ as his lawyer argues. Should we look kindly on him for losing control due to these extenuating circumstances and overlook the fact that he has sodomised a 10 month old baby?

Read what Indian Homemaker writes and sign the petition if you feel this reduced sentence is ridiculous.

We need stronger laws against Child Sexual Assault, not this random leniency.

We need a website which tells us exactly where convicted child sexual offenders are living after their release from imprisonment so we, as parents, can watch out for our kids.

We need a lot of awareness on the part of parents to get serious about Child Sexual Abuse.

We need a strong refusal to accept such ridiculous arguments and we need to protest against this.

GRIT@Prajnya: the Why, How and What

At Prajnya, we like to say that we have an unusual talent for creating more work for ourselves. We have an idea, no not even an idea – a thought; and before we know it, its a full-fledged project! Often we grapple with the chicken and egg question: does the work actually exist or are we creating more than we can actually take on and manage?

In the case of the Gender Violence Research and Information Taskforce, or GRIT as we now fondly call it (!), I can confidently say that there are no such doubts. Our work on gender violence originally began as a corollary to the work we hope to do on women in politics and public life – as a way to acknowledge the limitations that violence imposes on women’s daily lives. Our plan was to organise the 16 Days Campaign against Gender Violence every year as an awareness raising exercise. But in the way of many other non-profits who’ve no doubt traveled the same route, we soon found out that we couldn’t get away with an annual September to December appearance.

The fact is this: even in a city considered to be one of the safest in India, Chennai, there is a lot of work to be done. In a sense, Chennai offers a different kind of challenge: that of conservatism, unlike say, a Delhi that carries the baggage of being an unsafe city for women.

Our mandate then is three-fold, as is the case with any Prajnya initiative: GRIT will carry out research on gender violence in India and eventually South Asia; we will look to network and facilitate conversations between different groups of people for whom violence is a reality; and finally, we hope to put in place a full-fledged year-round programming calender that will include workshops, seminars, round tables and other public events.

There are of course several obstacles: finding entry points into places where we want to hold these conversations and of course, the funding to support our work.

We intend this blog to become one of many platforms we will create and sustain over the years, a place to document and record narratives of violence and an opportunity to have conversations about how we can deal with this violence .

I cannot promise you that this will be a fun blog to read, but I can say that we do hope to talk about issues that are relevant to every one of us.  Welcome to GRIT @ Prajnya and do write to us if you’d like to join or support our work in anyway!