sexual harassment at workplace

This article is written by Aditya Shrivastava from iPleaders.

HRs and in-house counsels are sometimes bad mouthed as most evil professions of all as they tend to spoil the party of employees on behalf of the management. Many employees passionately hate them and gossip about them. On the other hand, these are also the most overburdened professionals one would find. Every time the government makes a new law, they have a whole new process to create and take care of, usually without no extra resources or budget. HR professionals have now been given an added responsibility to create, administer and take care of Sexual Harassment policies and redressal mechanism of their companies. As usual, it is a new and heavy responsibility many of them are not ready to handle. There comes an opportunity for external experts to guide them and consult them, apart from fill the positions created by law of an external expert to be installed in each internal complaint committee.

Usually, lawyers or those with some expertise in handling sexual harassment occupies the position of external expert who also in turn has to guide the HR department in matters of sexual harassment, bot prevention and redressal. Therefore, apart from lawyers, CAs, NGO workers and women rights activists often get these roles given that they have some credibility and qualification in the domain of sexual harassment. Most importantly, they should have some knowledge of how to deal with things on the ground. However, is this really a viable career for people interested in this area or just a way to earn some side income while earning good karma?

The response of much of Indian corporate sector to addressing sexual harassment can be termed as ridiculous. The company might be huge, the headcount and turnover might be in huge but ensuring an environment safe for women is a mere checkbox on the compliance to-do list for most of them.

Devika Singh, an expert lawyer working with Clasis Law points out, “It is appalling to see that out of 10 companies only 2 take it seriously, 4 merely fulfil the obligation and other 4 do not comply with it at all” Even after the act being implemented in 2013, 36% of Indian companies and 25% of MNCs had not come even close to formulating ICC till 2015, reports a research study by FICCI. R50% out of them confessed to have a dysfunctional/ untrained ICC.

However, even this dark cloud has a silver lining. The number of reported cases has increased from 76 in 2013 to 445 in 2017. Although the actual number is much higher in reality, however, one can certainly correlate the higher reporting with increasing awareness and more women asserting their rights with changing time. It is also remarkable that companies are coming forward and reporting such cases, which is reflective of their compliance and monitoring mechanisms being in the right place. Cases like Tehelka have made companies, big or small, realise the importance of a robust Internal Complaints Committee and some companies are finally taking some positive steps under pressure of women employees or local authorities insisting on the same.

For someone who feels strongly about the issue, or an advocate who knows how to deal with such cases, HR managers with experience in policy creation, compliance officers with expertise on the issue and even for certified trainers, proficiency regarding sexual harassment law has turned out to be a great boost for their careers. For one, there is a steadily growing need inside organizations for people with strong understanding and experience around sexual harassment laws. On the other hand, legal provision and compliance driven external expert opportunities are certainly helping a large number of women to find consulting and freelancing opportunities.

However, there is a great confusion over who should be appointed as an expert on sexual harassment in internal compliant committees, a mandatory body every workplace with 10 or more employees have to constitute as recommended by statute.

“At least one employer who has approached NCW for advice said it was tough to decide who was credible enough and claimed that the solution lay in ‘certified experts’ from the women’s panel”, points out a report by ABP Live, India. As most HR managers need help with compliance and other more complicated aspects of the laws such as conducting hearings, writing orders and even dealing with police, the best way to position yourself as a great external member for ICCs, which come with sitting fees and monthly retainers in most cases, is to show that you have a brilliant understanding of all legal and procedural aspects of sexual harassment prevention as well as redressal.  

There are already several consultancies working in this area, but the supply of experts is greatly out matching the requirement. It only seems valid that faced with a scarcity of experts, larger companies are willing to pay handsomely for well known experts. However, there is a lot of opportunity for newcomers too.

With lakhs of professional having degrees around HR and allied subjects, about over 15 lakh lawyers and compliance officers, and NGOs running in every nook and corner of the country, many face difficulties in making a substantial career. The primary reason for this is a failure to specialize. Sexual harassment as one of the most contentious issues of today’s workplace is an excellent area to develop expertise in. While it may be a little early as the sector is still discovering the ground to stand on, an early entry can be a great advantage too.

This profession also offers a great flexibility to mothers and homemakers who cannot work full time. Being an ICC member is not a full time job. It’s more like consulting, and doesn’t require one to go to the office all the time.

However, I won’t give you any false hopes. It is not very easy to make a career in this industry either.

I had a tete-a-tete with the very experienced Ms. Sonal Mattoo on this subject. Ms. Mattoo has been in the industry for over 20 years now, and spoke extensively about how there is a lack of experienced professionals in the industry. She mentions that there is a huge scope, and companies indeed look for individuals who have a thorough understanding of human behaviour, however, they fail to find them because of availability of very few who understand the spirit of the 2013 statute.

Even Devika Singh confirms this point and points out how many of the firms have managed to form ICCs, but with untrained or clueless internal members. In her words, “Most of them depend on external members to deal with such issues, who are also very few in number. If the expert member is also clueless, which is often the case with some of the companies who want to appoint their friends or trusted service providers like lawyers and CAs, only the god can save the company in a desperate time.”

Ever since cases like Tarun Tejpal, Phaneesh Murthy and David Davidar has come into limelight, demand for real experts have gone up. With the #MeToo campaign and attack on alleged sexual harassers in the educational campuses, the trend of accusations against those who engaged in harassment, even if a few years back, is now being dredged up, making the role of sexual harassment experts more critical.

It is very simple. The repertoire of a sexual harassment expert requires verifiable education around sexual harassment and a way with complex human behaviour, accompanied with an insight on principles of natural justice. If management schools taught about it, or the employees could themselves understand it, it would have been a different ball game altogether. It is only because lack of specialization and proper skills that companies are often sceptical to hire so called experts on a regular payroll.

“So, am I suggesting that you cannot make a career as a POSH Expert at all?”

The answer to that is in strict negative. Let’s take the example of Pallavi Pareek. She knew from the very start what she wanted to start something of her own, which could bring about a change in the way the society functions. However, she was pretty clueless about what she wants to do. Being deeply inspired by her professor and mentor Gil Jocson, she decided to study about this field. However, it was post marriage when she decided to take up the charge and right now she amongst the top workplace diversity and sexual harassment prevention expert in the country. “It is always a challenge”, says Pallavi, “as a single, divorced, thirty year old woman, working in the field of sexual harassment laws – trust me society isn’t always kind.” However, if Pallavi can, so can you.

Your concerns are understandable. Not everyone can be Pallavi. To enter a field blindly without a mentor or without any degree can be a tough nut to crack. However, surviving is not that difficult either.

Shalini Khanna, Director, NAB India Centre for Blind Women and Disability Studies started off as a market researcher. After successfully working for more than 10 years, she was approached by Genpact to join them as an expert member due to her work with blind women in the past. It’s been 13 years, and she is a regular expert with more than 13 companies. She still does not have any degree or certification around sexual harassment, as many older experts don’t. It’s their experience which has brought them this far.

My interaction with Shalini was very short but extremely pleasant. She says, that to leave a full time marketing job and get into this field was challenging. I got my calling through working with my NGO, and I saw a purpose here. Genpact just happened, but now I enjoy investigation. I don’t know what why the law makers thought it was important to have an expert member on board, but I know that it takes a lot more than mere legal knowledge to solve such issues. It’s about having a compassionate approach.

My approach about writing this article has changed particularly due to my interaction with these wonderful ladies. These are individuals who understand about complex human behaviour. If you are somebody who understands that these issues are results of a constant struggle in ever changing workplaces for power and attention, if you can keep your biases aside and strive forward to make the situation better for the victim, go ahead and understand what’s in store for you.

As a sexual harassment expert, you will be required to create policies, ensure that the working environment is healthy for all the genders, conduct awareness programmes and investigate. A very popular choice for the companies is to conduct awareness programmes for the top level and senior level management. While any trainer can conduct a regular training, however, if this one goes wrong, the entire culture and environment which trickles down from top level falls flat. It could possibly destroy the entire fabric of a particular workplace.

The challenges are innumerable. You are dealing with India, where individuals irrespective of sex come with divergent mindsets, which may or may not be very progressive. Shalini recalls how during one of the investigations, the company was in need of someone for legal advice. She asked a lawyer friend who deals in Human Rights to help her. “She said she is not comfortable, can you believe that?” Shalini’s disbelief was evident to me, even so many years after the incident.

Imagine the situation, if a lawyer who deals with human rights was uncomfortable, will you be able to manage that? Imagine the discomforts of a court, where you are entrusted with the responsibility of a judge. Will you able to take up the responsibility?

Challenge doesn’t end there. You need to have a strong willpower along with a strong personality. In most of the cases, evidences go missing, people don’t turn up for hearing and even companies want you to delay the decisions. There can be many obstacles is the way of being true and fair in this job. It is a lot of pressure; do you think you can manage?

I know you are reading up till now because either you are someone who has got onto the panel or as someone who looks forward to making a career in this field. Keep in mind that this area is not for those who want to make a lot of money quickly. Only enter this field when you are ready to compromise on the money for the initial few months. Maybe a few years even. For most companies, you are only a part of their compliance process, and they want to spend as less as possible. It only needs you when it either needs a trainer or when it has a case cropped up which could lead to trouble. Naturally, it is only willing to pay you those circumstances.

However, if you are a trainer or an HR or a Manager having some ICC experience, or having thorough knowledge about POSH, it could only make you shine out and get a bang on your investment. Do the math yourself. With 13,94,819 companies in India, and not even 10 L&D companies training on such an important compliance, your market value can be much more if you can signal knowledge and expertise around sexual harassment. It can be the one thing that makes a difference between two good candidates for a job.

Even Devika points it out, “there are Corporates especially with attorneys abroad who understand the value of such compliances and tend to hire individuals on a regular payroll for such jobs. The fact is that most of them do not find individuals with such specializations.”

Cases might not be very regular but queries are. If you are someone who wants to start up an awareness company or a training institute, start up with POSH and I can assure you, you will thank me for this suggestion. With policies to be made, workshops to be conducted and cases to be investigated, your passion can certainly end up being your business too and a profitable one at that. Even if you are an HR or a manager who is entrusted with such a responsibility, make sure you are well equipped with knowledge and experience to give it your best shot.

But another hurdle is that none of the universities provide any course on it, with the exception of National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata which offers an online course for executives. “A professional course can certainly help. You know there are so many loopholes in the law. Most of the times a district officer is not available or to figure out exit process for an ICC member is also a challenge, the case laws are not clear and these are those issues which even experience can’t help. A course to give clarity would be a breather for everyone associated with the field and even the new entrants,” Devika emphasises. Devika strongly recommended the NUJS course on sexual harassment prevention saying that the practical knowledge can go a long way. The course also lists leading practitioners like Sonal Mattoo as industry-academia panel members.

You can be an HR professional, a consultant, an in-house counsel, or someone who wants to make a difference. If you get the opportunity to take up this responsibility of ensuring that dignity of two involved individuals are not tarnished, be prepared for it and do full justice to it.

 

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