How to Handle Sexual Harassment at Workplace

Sexual harassment at work is a problem not confined to India. It is a global problem afflicting workplaces everywhere.  Organizations are shelling out considerable compensations to affected employees in such lawsuits in the western countries. In 2013, the government of India brought out a comprehensive legislation named the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013. The act extends to the whole of India. The scope of the act is to protect women from sexual harassment and provide redressal. The Prevention of Sexual Harassment (POSH) Law is a complete manual spelling out in detail the preventive, prohibitory and redressal measures to be adopted at workplaces to curb sexual harassment. However, just compliance with the law is not enough. Employers should think ahead and take the right steps to ensure they are treating the issue at hand with rationality and sensitivity.

HR professionals are apprehensive when confronted with harassment complaints. And rightfully so: such charges lead to investigations, litigations, having negative impact on organizational culture and employee morale. If the complaint, even though unintentionally, isn’t managed well, the company’s brand image is at risk.

In situations like these, HR professionals are in a high pressure, high-risk zone.  It is in the interest of the entire corporate ecosystem for them to manage the situation with objectivity, rationality, fairness and empathy.

Here are some basic rules to follow to ensure that a complaint is managed most prudently:

Open mind: Even though you may be having a tough time believing that the harassment happened right under your nose, do not start an investigation in a state of disbelief, as that could leave to an inadequate investigation. Don’t come to any conclusions until your investigation is complete as it is a sure shot way to land your company into court.

Treat the complainer with respect and compassion: An employee is already uncomfortable bringing complaints to the employer. Treating him/her with kindness and respect at this stage would reduce their chances of seeking government agency support. You do not want the matter to go out in the public domain and hence treating it sensitively at this stage is your best chance of avoiding that.

Don’t retaliate: Do not do any of the following during the investigation as it is considered a form of retaliation and is punishable under the law; termination, discipline, demotion, pay cuts, shifting hours of work, branch change, change in the job role.

Follow established procedures: The POSH law lays down the procedure for investigation and timelines associated with it in details. Follow those to the T. Don’t open yourself up to claims by bending the rules.

Educate yourself: Be more informed about the procedures to be followed during the investigation, timelines, how courts have ruled in the past and your responsibilities as an employer.

Interview the people involved and around: Talk, Talk, Talk! Get details. Who said what, who did what, reactions, who else was there, etc.. Take notes of your interviews. Interview both sides, witnesses and other employees willing to talk. Look for contradictions and/ corroborations.

Keep it confidential: A discrimination complaint can divide the workplace. Avoid these problems by insisting on confidentiality and practising them in your investigation.

Take appropriate action against the wrongdoer(s): Once you have gathered all the information available, sit down and analyse the data before arriving on a verdict. If you conclude that harassment occurred, device a discipline plan. Ensure that the severity of disciplinary action is commensurate with the seriousness of the offense.

Most importantly, employers must take the sexual harassment laws governing Indian workplaces into account to formulate the policies dealing with sexual harassment at their workplace. They must ensure a healthy and safe work environment.  Rules should be applied without bias and exception, and offenders must be dealt with as per rules swiftly without fail.

Vishakha and others vs State of Rajasthan
Medha Kotwal Lele vs Union of India

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