Sexual Harassment at Work Places

  Eight steps towards full compliance

The high-profile sexual harassment cases slapped against Dr R.K. Pachauri of TERI and Tarun Tejpal of Tehelka suggest that sexual harassment in its many forms is real and prevalent. So, it is imperative to ensure compliance with the Sexual Harassment for Women at Work Place (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act (SHWWA), 2013, which should be viewed as an important employee “empowerment” tool that provides the confidence of working in a fair and just organisation.

     Still, the reality is that only a minuscule number of work places have achieved full compliance. While non-compliance with the SHWW Act can result in penalties and even cancellation of a company’s licence, what companies need to understand is that by making themselves fully compliant with the Act in letter and spirit, they will, one, avoid the chances of such incidents, and, two, increase their attractiveness as employers besides, of course, preventing decreased productivity and loss of talent due to any sexual harassment charges or cases.

One reason for the widespread non-compliance with the SHWW Act is lack of awareness of its provisions. Officers heading small units like regional branch offices, showrooms, clinics, department stores, restaurants, even schools and colleges, believe the Act is not applicable to them, especially if they do not have a single women employee. However, any workplace with 10 or more employees – even if there is no women employee – has to have an Internal Complaints’ Committee (ICC) under the Act for redressing any sexual harassment complaints. Branch offices need their own ICC, and cannot refer cases to corporate offices. One reason why the SHWW stipulates that even an office with no women employees has to form an ICC is because women could well visit the workplace as a vendor, a client, a contractor or a consultant. A big mistake that senior officials make is to think that by implementing the Act they might actually end up encouraging such incidents. However, it is better to create the right checks and balances proactively, rather than reactively when much of the damage has already been done. (For set-ups with less than 10 employees or for employees in the unorganized sector – such as construction labour or domestic maids – the district’s local complaint committee is empowered to hear any complaints.)

But just forming the ICC is not enough. To fully conform with the SHWW Act’s requirements, workplaces have to undertake eight vital steps. These are:

  1. Ensure that a detailed anti-sexual harassment policy is part of the company’s HR guidelines. The sexual harassment policy should be aligned with all provisions of the Act including definitions, clauses, procedural mechanisms and remedies.
  2. Amend service rules to treat sexual harassment as “misconduct”.
  3. Set up an ICC within the company. The ICC is required to consist of at least four members; its presiding officer has to be a woman, half the members must be women, and there should be one “outside the company” member (preferably from an NGO or an individual with knowledge of women’s issues, a lawyer, etc.
  4. Prominently display the list of ICC members and their contact details on the company’s notice board, in the canteen, and near utilities.  
  5. Ensure technical/legal training of the ICC members.
  6. Ensure prompt handling of complaints by the ICC (in case there is a complaint).
  7. Conduct regular awareness workshops for employees.
  8. File a yearly summary of the ICC in the company’s annual report and with the district administration.  

Please remember that these eight steps are not a set of “tick-list” tasks; quality and focus is equally important. Zero tolerance for sexual harassment needs to be well articulated in policy and person. All HR policies and documents (including employee rulebooks, appointment letters) should be in perfect sync with the spirit of the Act and with each other. Just a quick “copy-paste” job of provisions from the Act may prove counter-productive. Then, unit and HR heads of workplaces should select the ICC members (including the external nominee) carefully, and, once chosen, all ICC members should go through legal training. For instance, ICC members should know that in case of the more severe “sexual assault” charge they need to ask the complainant to lodge a police complaint.  

Employee awareness workshops should be regularly held. Orientation programs should also have a small section on sexual harassment. Employees should be empowered to speak up for themselves as for others. Lastly, as the Act says, malicious complaints should be dealt with as severely as genuine complaints. 

The Act clearly puts the onus for compliance on employers. However,  awareness among employers is still low. All stakeholders including  government agencies, the district administration, civil society members including NGOs, citizen groups, womens’ organisations and trade unions need to build awareness. If implemented in its true spirit, the SHWW Act can go a long way in creating an environment where women feel safe and their productivity doesn’t suffer due to extraneous factors.

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