Sexual Harassment at Work: Do’s and Don’ts

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By: Sharanya Ranga and Riya Dutta

Just when the social media outrage over sexual harassment incidents in Uber was abating, allegations of sexual harassment in one of India’s successful entertainment startups, The Viral Fever (TVF), have made headlines all over. An ex-employee’s anonymous post alleging sexual harassment by the CEO of TVF went viral followed by several other ex-employees leveling similar charges of sexual harassment against him.  

While the legislation on prevention of sexual harassment has been in place for over three years, is the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal), 2013 (“Act”) observed  more in its breach? Yes, businesses tend to adopt a casual approach towards anti-sexual harassment compliances as against other regulatory compliances. However, what is heartening is the increasing no-tolerance approach of women employees towards sexual harassment in the workplace thereby forcing employers across sectors to take steps to comply with the Act. So how should businesses, especially startups and growing businesses, look at getting into a compliant zone here? Here are some quick do’s and don’ts for businesses to bear in mind as they take steps towards a harassment-free workplace:

Do:

  • Take sexual harassment seriously! This sets the tone for rolling out a zero tolerance policy and creating a positive work environment. And this better flow from the top.
  • Put in place an anti-sexual harassment policy in line with the Act, considering the specific requirements of your business.
  • Follow due process (Set up an Internal Complaints Committee (“ICC”) to deal with complaints, investigate complaints in a fair manner and recommend disciplinary action accordingly).
  • Provide periodic awareness sessions for employee sensitization, besides training the ICC members.
  • Treat all such matters with utmost confidentiality respecting the privacy of the concerned parties.
  • Assist the complainant if she decides to file a criminal complaint against the accused.

Don’t:

  • Trivialise/ignore/hush up the complaint. It’s the complainant’s prerogative to draw the line at what she perceives as welcome or unwelcome conduct!
  • Retaliate or threaten the complainant with adverse consequences.
  • Sack the accused rightaway! (Or still worse, sack the complainant).

Sexual harassment can mean any unwelcome act or behavior ranging from physical contact, demand or request for sexual favours, making sexually coloured remarks or any other direct or implied verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature. As such an act cannot be pre-defined by rigid parameters, the key consideration is if such act or behavior of sexual nature is unwelcome for the woman. Also, mere silence of the woman employee or tacit encouragement or even flirting does not mean such an act is welcomed by her at all times.   

At the end of the day, it is important for all of us to understand the thin line that demarcates a “Hey, you are looking nice today” versus a “Hey, you are looking sexy today” in a workplace. Macho statements by male employees complimenting women in a sexual manner cannot be casually shrugged off, if the woman finds it offensive and unwelcome. The onus is on the founders and the senior management of growing businesses to build in a professional work culture from day one and have a zero tolerance policy towards sexual harassment that respects the dignity of women in a workplace.

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