The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, modelled on the Vishakha Guidelines, was notified by the Indian Parliament in December, 2013. The Act requires an employer to set up an Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) in each office or branch that has more than ten employees of any gender.
As per the guidelines, it is mandatory to display conspicuously at the workplace, the penal consequences of indulging in acts that may constitute sexual harassment as well as the composition of the Internal Complaints Committee (ICC).
What’s surprising is the level of preparedness among Indian companies even after one and a half years of the Act being implemented, and this leaves much to be desired.
A survey by Ernst & Young (EY) reveals that almost 50 per cent of the respondent organisations had not displayed the penal consequences of indulging in sexual harassment at a prominent place within the premises. The number is even higher than the average in the electronics & telecom (67 %), and BFSI (59%) sectors.
Even more surprising is the fact that almost 31 per cent of respondents were not even compliant with the Act.
The encouraging fact, however, was that organisations were increasingly putting the basics of anti-sexual harassment mechanisms and campaigns into place. Around 69 per cent of the respondents had constituted ICCs in their organisations after the enactment of the Act, while another 13 per cent were still in the process of setting them up. However, 18 per cent of the respondents had neither done so nor had the inclination or preparedness to do so.
In terms of non-compliance of the Act, the small and medium sized companies are majorly unprepared (around 50 per cent) vis-à-vis the largest ones where noncompliance was only 27 per cent. Similarly, among Indian companies, the figure was 36 per cent vis-à-vis multinational companies (MNCs) where unpreparedness was seen among 25 per cent of the respondent companies.
Surprisingly, sectors with a large number of women employees showed ignorance of the law. Around 40 per cent of IT and advertising and media companies, respectively, claimed that they were unaware of the penal clause for noncompliance of constituting an ICC.
The Vishakha Guidelines have also made it mandatory for all companies to organise workshops and awareness programmes at regular intervals, to sensitise employees on the issues and implications of workplace sexual harassment and organise orientation programmes for members of the Internal Complaints Committee.
The survey reveals that over 40 per cent of the respondent companies are yet to organise such training programmes, while 21 percent of the respondent organisations did not have general awareness campaigns aimed at their employees.
Training and awareness are crucial. The orientation programmes are an important aspect of the Vishakha Guidelines because managing sensitivities around sexual harassment at the workplace is a daunting task. Besides, it needs investigative skills to differentiate between false and genuine complaints apart from giving a patient hearing to the complainant.
It was found that there was an increase in malicious complaints increase after appraisals and 12 per cent of the respondent companies agreed to this. However, around 50 per cent of the respondents were just unclear about malicious complaints.
The following case indicates why the right judgement is the most important factor in the success of this programme. For instance, a young IT professional was often teased by her colleagues because of her conservative way of thinking. She felt uncomfortable when her male colleagues tried to be friendly with her and exchanged inappropriate jokes and remarks, in person or through e-mails and SMS.
She was distressed since this began affecting her work. Finally, she approached her company’s ICC and filed a complaint of sexual harassment. On investigation, it was discovered that there was no malicious intent and her colleagues were only being friendly with her.
In such cases, it is crucial that the ICC provides a feedback to the aggrieved woman employee explaining that there is no malicious intent in her colleagues’ actions. The above case was purely one of misunderstanding with no wrong intention.
However, it was found that there were cases where complaints were filed with an agenda and when the truth was revealed the complainant was sacked for malicious intention.
In another incident, a junior team member approached her senior complaining that another senior employee from a different division had tried to hold her hand and invited her for dinner. She was uncomfortable, but since this incident had taken place outside the office, she did not have any witnesses or proof. While she was still unsure, she went ahead and flagged the issue. The matter was taken up by the company’s ICC. After a thorough investigation, it was ascertained that the junior team member had filed a malicious complaint.
This was because she wanted to change her profile and had approached the senior employee from the other division to help her out. However, he had refused and asked her to take it up through the right channels. Upset by his response, she had filed the complaint. She was later dismissed from the company.
The positive aspect of the survey was that 98 per cent of the respondents indicated that their organisations would provide assistance to women if they chose to file complaints, irrespective of whether there was an ICC or not.
This indicates that India Inc. does believe in gender diversity and safeguarding their women workforce.
The survey was conducted during the period January 2015 to April 2015, through an online questionnaire, which was hosted on EY’s website in India. Hard copies of the questionnaire were given to participants at various events organised by the firm.