Most enterprises, irrespective of the profession and field, woke up to one thing in the last few weeks: women crying #MeToo in unison. Women globally are coming forward with their stories of workplace harassment and, as is to be expected, it is quite disturbing. In India too, whether it is Bollywood or firm selling steel, we have had women coming out with their harassment stories. For some, the emotional trauma of reliving those moments again, especially in front of people, had been a cathartic release. The sad thing is, despite the widespread acceptance of #MeToo movement, women workers do not have it easy. If she dares to report sexual advances or inappropriate behaviour it is taken lightly or, worse, she is let go. An employee of a big private firm, for instance, came out with her experience a few days back. She says she was fired from her job after she reported sexual advances from one of her seniors to the HR department.
LocalCircle, a social media platform for communities and governance, did a survey on this burning issue at the national level. The survey had votes from 15,000 participants all over the country, of which 6,100 were female voters. The survey states that 32 per cent of the respondents actually experienced or one of their family members experienced harassment at workplace. 45 per cent said they have not had such experience while 23 were unsure about it. The survey also find outs that 78 per cent respondents didn’t report the event to the HR or to the senior leadership while only 22 per cent said they went ahead and communicated to authorities. The result shows that our society is still not too keen on accepting the issue as a bigger problem. Coretha M Rushing, Chief People Officer at Equifax and an active member of Society of Human Resource Management, says: “With the #MeToo movement, what’s happening is that, some courageous women are coming forward and are talking about their experience in workplaces. It’s no surprise that this is encouraging other women to open up as well. Men and women need to speak up when they see inappropriate behaviour. It is essential to maintain a balance and safe workplace environment that is acceptable for everyone. And this is something that the HR should address. This movement is going to be there for some time.”
The immediate effect of the movement is that big companies are becoming more aware and have started setting up internal panels and policies. “I believe the movement has led to increased conversations on the subject of women’s challenges at the workplace. Sexual harassment has been an untouched topic due to the discomfort, it usually creates. However, with more and more women opening up with their stories, it has become easier for organizations to discuss the problems and thus arrive at effective solutions,” says Lubeina Shahpurwala, co-founder of Mustang Socks & Accessories and Chairperson of FICCI Ladies Organisation.
This is not so common in small firms, but they are being exposed to the need of the hour too. For instance, in the United States, CNBC, along with Survey Monkey collected data from more than 2,000 small business owners. It found that half of business owners have formal policies to tackle such cases. About 5 per cent of SMEs said they have fired or suspended the offender.
India may be slow to start, but the trickle has begun. One such business based out of Kolkata has put in place policies after tackling two cases involving female employees. Shantanu Som, owner of Somnetics, a tech solution provider firm, tells us how his company dealt with such cases. “We had faced two such issues in the past. In both cases, departmental inquiry had been initiated and the complaints were found to be genuine. Both cases, the offender (male in both cases) were officially sacked under disciplinary grounds and the company did not give them a clean sheet in the background checks made by their next employer. We asked the female victims whether they wanted to pursue a legal action against the offender. None of them wanted to take it up legally.”
Entrepreneur Akshaara Lalwani is founder and CEO of a PR Firm Communicate India in New Delhi. Her firm has number of female employees who deals with people day to day and hence, she feels, it’s critical to oversee the security of employees within or out of the office premises. She says, “Thankfully we have not come across one such situation till date. But that’s because we have a cyber vigilance department for early detection and monitoring along with our flat hierarchy and open door policy. Communicate embraces article 14 of the constitution of equal opportunity to women and men and it will always be that way. But since this movement has started we are extra careful. We have increased vigilance. We regularly floor walk. We have created a MeToo Champion who looks into all cases for sexual harassment that is gender agnostic.”
Som says that his organisation is following zero tolerance policy from the inception, regarding harassment of any type, towards any employee with a special emphasis on sexual harassment towards female employees. “Our policy assures confidentiality of the complainant and gives him/her protection. Naturally, we expect the complaint to be made within a reasonable time of occurrence. It becomes legally and ethically challenging if complaints are made after a long period of delay and if especially the employee is not presently serving our organization. Although, any complaints with sufficient evidence and proof are taken with extreme seriousness, even if the incumbent is an ex-employee and there is a significant delay in making the complaint,” he says.
India has POSH Act, Vishakha guidelines for acting on such cases but earlier this year NSSO survey found out that, women workforce has fallen from 43 per cent to 31 per cent of the total Indian workforce pertaining to various reasons in which workplace harassment and safety being one of the larger issues.
Female employees, especially from tier 3 cities, put workplace safety first. Women would rather leave their jobs than work in an unsafe environment. It is one of the major challenges that HR has to deal with. Som of Somnetics says, “Empathy is important not only for allowing the employees to feel comfortable and speak about sexual harassment but it also helps the organization to receive feedback on its policy, performance and innovation.” He further feels that a pro-active HR policy and its subtle and sure-footed execution are important to maintain workplace harmony. Building trust among employees, especially within the female employees, is important, he feels. “The top management is expected to be aware, empathetic and must be committed to the cause. Periodic review of situation is also important. The organisation must have enough infrastructure (e.g CCTV camera, long-term preservation of footage) to carry out an unbiased investigation. This gives some kind of assurance to everyone. Neither the guilty will be spared, nor an innocent be punished,” says Som.
Under a Firstpost initiative, while discussing about how businesses can deal with sexual harassment cases, K Ramkumar, the founder and CEO of Leadership Centre, says, men should also join the discussion and they should come forward to express themselves on the issue. “Keeping men out of discussion will not help the #MeToo movement. We have to engage men in the conversation instead of saying they are the big beast — it won’t work that way.” The only way we’ll have safe work culture is by discouraging exchange of favours, he adds. “The culture of joining the ‘guys club’ to get a promotion is a sick culture. The whole practice of calling a woman over for a drink and dinner and taking advantage of her is a part of the sexual harassment,” he says.
“The moment a harassment instance is reported to the HR department, such a predator should be fired. With more such action, we can set an example on how a predator should be treated,” says Ramkumar.
This online movement has not only spurred the awareness around preventive and curative measures, but has led people to bring change, think about the social issues and communicate about it. On the flipside, to stay out of controversies, companies may choose not to employ women workers. But Som of Somnetics disagrees. He says, “I personally think there will not be any effect on the hiring part. Globally, getting a competent employee is a challenge and the gender must not be a deciding factor. While Fortune 100 organisations are being led by women leaders, women executives had come a long way. I do not find gender has any role to play in hiring. Meritocracy should be the only criteria while hiring.”
Lalwani of Communicate India agrees with Som. She says, “These sort of movement have opened up minds and offer safe workplaces for women. It is ridiculous not to employ women to avoid problems. In that case, we could say we should not employ men as well.”
The country has plenty of laws, but still our society lags behind when it comes to treating women with respect. Over centuries it has laid a strong foundation in victim shaming that people who are sexually harassed would rather not talk about it. Movements like #MeToo has been a channel to vent out their feelings. The events of late has shown us how important solidarity is in bringing such injustices to the fore. The events also showed us beyond doubt that suppression is not a healthy way to handle any problem, as it can be triggered at some point and can overwhelm everyone concerned. Communication and change are the keys to take this forward. It is yet to be seen whether #MeToo could be sustained, whether the environment of change is strong enough to bring long-term measures in every workplace, so that any harassment, irrespective of gender and type of harassment, can be reported without fear and addressed within a short period of time.