Conducting sensitization of employees on sexual harassment is a responsibility of employers as per the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act, 2013. Unlike the responsibility to create internal complaints committees for handling complaints, which is triggered only if the number of people working is at least ten, sensitization responsibility exists irrespective of the size of the organization. This is not known to most people.

This is a short master guide explaining a roadmap for employee sensitization, which can be used by HR, training departments, compliance professionals, anybody else in the organization who conducts training or even third-party experts engaged for the purpose.

You can train employees working in virtually any kind of capacity and job description on this. Feel free to fine-tune it over time and add further. You will discover your own personal touch with practice. Do not forget to share your learning with us. You can also have a look at our courses to learn more and update yourself with the minute intricacies involved.

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We have written this because we realized that opening people up is difficult. Technical talk doesn’t work. Sexual harassment is not a cerebral subject. It is a topic people have strong views and opinions about. To influence behaviour in any meaningful way, objections need to be handled in light of real life, confrontational situations and hard personal experiences.

Introductory conversation

The objective of the introductory conversation is to ask participants why you are there. Most of them will say it is a training. Explain that the meaning of training appears to be that something about them needs to be changed or they need to be taught how to do something.

Acknowledge that you are not there to train them on how to behave with women.

Establish trust that you don’t think that anyone will misbehave or sexually assault or rape a woman. However, we all have some confusion, doubts and perversions, whose roots we will discuss. In this context, also mention that there is a new law that regulates sexual harassment at work. In some cases there may be too few women and men may not believe that interactions with them are likely to take place. This may not be a permanent situation and the discussion cannot stop here in any case, so take it out of the context of the workplace into a general environment.

The trainer can also ask how many people are married, have working wives, children (who go to school/ college or are working). Ask if they are worried about their safety at work. Explain how the law plays a role in alleviating their apprehensions by creating systems to protect their loved ones.

This also gives an opportunity to them to ask their families if there is an ICC in the wives’ workplace, in the child’s school / workplace? It makes them messengers. It gets them invested in the conversation.

Conversation 1 – Sex, intimacy, attraction and safety

The objective of this conversation is to open the participants to a free exchange where they share their views, pre-conceived notions and opinions about sex and physical relationship between a) men and women or b) men and men and c) women and women. The expert must be able to engage with participants on their genuine views if the rest of this session is to proceed. It can also lay the foundation for a gender-neutral sensitization.

The second objective is to directly enable participants (men included) to relate to the feeling of discomfort caused by sexual harassment, or at least a feeling of being unsafe. The trainer can prompt by suggesting situations which are related to the participants’ lives.

The first step is to ask what sex brings to the minds of the participants and start a frank conversation on intimacy between men and women, their opinion of physical attraction, etc. Draw attention to the possibility of physical relationships between men and men, and between men and women and women and women. Get participants to acknowledge that talking about sex is not taboo – it is possible and prevalent (even behind closed doors) in society. You can source examples from scriptures, media, paintings, etc. The trainer should plant suggestions and get the participants to suggest answers. His or her role is that of a facilitator only, not a lecturer.

You may need to ask sudden questions to a participant to so that their response is genuine and spontaneous – for example, did someone (from the same or opposite sex) show sexual or emotional interest? Was there any situation where it crossed a line, or where they wanted to get away from it but couldn’t? How did it feel? They may or may not acknowledge it. This will help them relate the conversation to their perspective and life, establishing the foundation for their participation.

Get men to acknowledge how it feels to have sexual interest generated towards them. Try to find out examples from the life of someone in the group discussion. (If not unwelcome advances, get them to acknowledge that girlfriends and wives showed interest in them, which opens the possibility that they could also be objectified. That will later on enable them to appreciate how someone else feels when objectified. This is where the discussion becomes relevant to them. Get men to step out of the zone where they think that it is shameful for men to be shown physical interest in.

Point out that sexual harassment can lead a person to feel unsafe at work. Emphasise that safety is not a risk which is unique to women. Help the participants in identifying situations where they feel unsafe, irrespective of their gender. For example, they could feel unsafe about their wives, mothers or sisters traveling to work, staying outside at late nights, their children going to school or for any classes, etc.

Communicate that this is how a woman can feel when sexually harassed. This will help participants relate the conversation to their perspective and life, at least from the perspective of safety, and make them empathetic to the cause. It will help in establishing a strong foundation for their participation.

Conversation 2 – How to recognize the line of ‘unwelcome’ sexual behaviour

Once there is a foundation for a free discussion on sex, we can move to the next part of the conversation. It is based around participants themselves recognizing when sexual attention can become uncomfortable. This is a bold and highly charged conversation. A common question which arises in any discussion around sexual harassment is how a person can recognize what is acceptable conduct and what isn’t. What is normal conduct and when does it become unacceptable?

Here, the trainer (if a woman) can start using her physical identity to explain how people who see her would perceive her. The focus is on physical perceptions – a person with a voluptuous figure, gorgeous looks, dangerous smile, etc. She could identify portions of the attire that could generate sexual interest. This demonstrates that women are aware of how men perceive them, that momentary or fleeting ideas and perceptions that do not translate into action are not problematic. It explains that people recognize and appreciate being considered attractive, but also helps a third person in assessing when this can become uncomfortable.

If the trainer is a man, he can directly start explaining (even with humour) examples of how he has felt desirable, and share incidents where there was excessive attention from another man or woman that made him uncomfortable.

The purpose is to identify a universally agreeable line of tolerance or acceptable conduct for everyone at work, without making employees uncomfortable about whether ordinary and everyday work interactions are also capable of being perceived as sexual harassment.

How do we know whose perception about the act being harassing is relevant – the complainant or the respondent? It is important not to get into this and take the argument that post-sensitization, both the complainant and the respondent are brought to such a level that they are both able to recognize unwelcome situations in the same way.

Discussion on ‘unwelcomeness’ of sexual harassment

Men can deny or feel numb or incapable of identifying / reading / recognizing suggestive and unwelcome actions that they take towards women. In a vast majority of cases, they can argue that their behaviour was inadvertent and that in any case their conduct need not have been perceived as having any sexual connotations. It is important that such arguments are not used in hearings.

This situation can be prevented by suitable sensitization, so that there is clarity on what is and what is not unwelcome. However, the tone used to explain what is unwelcome needs to be carefully chosen – the session will backfire if it is sensed that the organization has a pedantic or a ‘we will teach you how to behave’ attitude.

Therefore, if one is attempting to explain how a victim feels, it can may make a listener more defensive or feel guilty and horrible about himself or herself. These feelings may not necessarily encourage alteration of one’s conduct. Instead if a trainer makes the participants connect to experiences of unwelcome conduct in their own lives, they will automatically relate to the pain of a complainant / victim. . Hence, the trainer can make them recall an experience where they experienced or gave in to welcome or unwelcome sexually suggestive action. The purpose is for them  to acknowledge that it has or could have happened with them as well.

Conversation 3 – An experiential way to understand sexual harassment and its layers

When do you feel sexually harassed in the most obvious manner? When someone forces you? What do you feel then? Describe a physical action (e.g. undressing, tearing clothes) that makes obvious what the physical form of sexual harassment is. Extend it to rape so that people understand the seriousness, gravity and reality of the situation – otherwise it is understood at a very superficial level.

Next, take it to the stage of a forceful conversation between two people, where there is some persistent suggestion about sexual activity that one of the persons is not agreeable to or visibly uncomfortable about. See if participants can identify situations in their own lives (even without sharing them fully) and relate to them. Expect to face resistance and sluggishness – men find it the hardest to do this.

Next, take it to the level of intent, where someone just has a natural or perverted sexual desire which keeps arising all the time. What can be done about it? Make people admit that they have sexual desires (re-deploy the trainer’s objectification to get them to acknowledge this – create examples where they are tempted by the trainer’s physique, dress, skin, etc.). Explain that men may not always lead in sexual situations and have often found themselves to be seduced or at the other end of the sexually motivated actions of their spouses or companions at different points of time. This will open them up a little.were newly married, or when they are sexually inviting towards them.

Ask men about when they feel most attractive about themselves, and whether they appreciate attention. They will all accept and admit their secret wish about being considered desirable and for being acknowledged. Ask them when it feels like appreciation, and ask them when it gets uncomfortable. Participants may initially deny accepting that it ever gets uncomfortable, or they  may say that they have the ability to manage the discomfort – but that still means that it is uncomfortable. Point out that the law is there to address that feeling of discomfort.

If they don’t still appreciate, the trainer can conduct a quick simulation. Ask a person to stand up. The trainer can scan that person person persistently (in a somewhat lecherous manner) to make them feel the discomfort. They will themselves admit to it.

Next, talk about the woman’s perception. What will she do? Explain how just like it is for men, women also like being admired and acknowledged. It is just a trait any human being has irrespective of gender. However, there is a clear and identifiable difference between admired and persistently ogled at. Just because somebody wants to be admired does not imply that that person is inviting unwanted sexual comments or attention, or is of loose character. This realization is extremely important for participants.

Conclude this conversation by emphasizing that the problem does not arise with sexual desire, attraction or attention but on subsequent perverted thinking (if unrestrained) or action that follows from it.

Conversation 4 – Sexual harassment and cultural diversity

The confusion about whose perception on whether sexual harassment occurred is relevant (i.e. the doer or the complainant) was touched upon earlier, but it is compounded by diversity issues. How can these be dealt with?

At first, it is important to establish the difference between what actually happened and any inferences that were drawn from what happened. The trainer can take the lead and share examples from his or her own life. For example, what is the first impression of:

  • A woman who smokes or drinks – A woman with low morals and poor upbringing
  • A woman wearing a sari – Respectful, sophisticated and cultured person
  • A woman wearing jeans – Does that mean she shouldn’t be taken seriously or is careless?

Explain how these are obviously only first impressions which need not be true. A woman wearing a sari may drink and smoke and may be promiscuous, while a woman who smokes may be committed, hardworking and dedicated. It is important that the relevance of impressions is destroyed. There is a difference between what actually is and all the noise which is introduced in the process of interpretation.

Explain that this is not related to the above situations only, but it is happening all the time. If there are 40 women in the workplace, their male co-workers may have drawn certain inferences or conclusions about them (it is irrelevant whether they are innocent and harmless or negative – the purpose is to explain how we continuously keep drawing inferences).

Give example of somebody who has the habit of more intimate physical contact – someone who talks from a closer distance, someone who habitually pats on the shoulder, back or thigh. Make people recognize what is actually harassment from the previous conversation and what appears to them as harassment due to a different conditioning or background. Do you really need to live in suffocation in such as case? Do you even need to approach an ICC?

Identify as many factors of diversity that could lead to a difference in perception in the context of that organization. Take help from the audience to list down wide categories of situations that could arise in their work context. The expert should be capable of explaining new situations that participants may introduce.

Referring to the above, expand the ambit of sexual harassment at work to include third parties, visitors and outsiders within the work context. Explain workplace. Explain management responsibilities.

Conversation 5 – Complaints committees can inspire confidence

The objective of this conversation is to explain to employees what they can do if there is an incident. It is also to inspire trust in the functioning of the complaints mechanism – if it is not used there is danger of unreported complaints, which can adversely impact work environment or unexpected escalation (to media or police) when matters go out of control. .

Explain that the key purpose of the session is:

  • not to educate
  • not to train
  • not just to assure you about your innocence
  • not just to inform you about the law
  • not just to discharge a statutory responsibility

The purpose is to inform participants about an available workable solution in case an incident happens.

Before proceeding further, it is possible that there is a feeling of dissatisfaction or mistrust amongst participants due to past experiences of inaction or inappropriate action by the company towards some incidents. The confidence will not be fool-proof. People will relate to their past experiences with the company.This should not obstruct the discussion from proceeding and the trainer needs to distil it from the participants and make them place it aside. How can this be done?

The trainer can check if some event had occurred earlier. Ask participants if they know about any event. Ask how they know. Ask if their families know. Ask if them they were the victim or the accused, would they have wanted everyone to know?

This enables them to appreciate the importance of confidentiality, otherwise it remains a technical concept. Explain that the ICC (the Internal Complaints Committee) is an ‘internal’ mechanism that maintains confidentiality, a forum to file ‘complaints’, a ‘committee’ because it is not an individual and has institutional sanctity.

If you still find them reluctant to move forward, ask them why it is not possible to trust The organization. The participants also need to give up what they feel. How else will trust be established going forward if they continue to hold it against them? Are they themselves handling confidentiality, bias, judgment-related issues about the incidents that are around in the right way? Use examples from the above discussion to say how they were mistaken about certain concepts, and how it is possible for officers in the internal machinery of the organization to have made mistakes due to similar dilemmas.

Make people agree to work forward on their grudges and establish that the company and the ICC are working on their responsibilities. Conducting this sensitization is one such proof of this effort. Say that ICC wants help and they should inform whenever there is a problem. This helps them get on board, irrespective of whether they trust right now.

Next, they will be eager to inquire into the legitimacy of the committee.  They will ask about appointment, qualifications, role of management, independence of the committee, etc. The trainer needs to be prepared to explain this. Get a briefing from the organization on how they went about constituting the committee (including appointing the external member). The trainer should also go through the 2013 Act and Rules. Also, if they ask if there is a committee in their organization and who the members are, it will give you insights on whether the organization itself has done an adequate job of informing others (putting notices is not enough – if people haven’t really read and understood its implications).

Explain how ICC members have a certain credibility and ability to keep things confidential. Explain how ICC is specifically trained on decision-making like the participants are on certain aspects of sexual harassment.

Simulation exercise: Here, the trainer can create a quick simulation activity and invite 5-6 people who are allocated roles (complainant, respondent, members of the ICC). Explain the basic duties – that they must hear each side and ask questions to find out what really happened.

Ask the mock ICC members to inspire confidence in the complainant to open up. If they fail, show that ICC members are trained to not fail on this. Explain why people will not open up – due to fear of being ridiculed, perception of bias, inability to connect or relate to the ICC or trust him or her.

To connect, ask people who are parents how they find out when their children fight. They ask questions. They ask for evidence (if a toy is broken, where is the broken toy? Relate how complaining children brought others who were present (witnesses) to say how insulted/ embarrassed you were). They relate with this.

This serves two purposes – it enables participants to appreciate the unique role and responsibilities of the ICC and also encourages them to be open with the ICC in future if a situation arises.

Conversation 6 – Recap and question-answer session

Draw the outline of what you explained:

  • What is sexual harassment, forms of sexual harassment
  • Whose perception is relevant and diversity issues – Intention vs. perception
  • Management and ICC responsibilities

Your work as a trainer is not complete with just one sensitization. Sensitizing workers at one workplace cannot make a huge impact, although it can start a wave. You can give some home work to participants – they can start talking about all these issues in the family and check whether there are systems where their wives / husbands work, in schools or colleges where their children study, etc. If they are not, explain how important it is that their family members talk about it in their respective workplaces. You can ask them to briefly explain what they learned in this session.

Important guidelines

  • At any stage, don’t let a participant who is sharing be ridiculed. That will hijack the discussion. If someone is judgmental or laughing in the process, point out that he or she is a victim of societal conditioning and that it is not necessary to react in that way to people who choose to share freely and be vulnerable. Talk to them about the goodwill, support and genuineness that vulnerability can generate. Explain to those who are laughing that they are free and safe to be genuine and vulnerable too.
  • If at any point even 1 person is not getting the point of the conversation, ask dissenting people to raise their hand and have a one-to-one dialogue in front of everyone else, so that it opens opportunities for other people also. Recognize that the journey is incomplete and stuck because the one person is stuck and work with him.
  • While appreciating the rationale of the sensitization and the intent of the act, people may at some stage want to know why men are not protected under the 2013 Act. Why is harassment of men not talked about? You may need to explain how the Act has its roots in the time of the 1996 Vishaka judgment and older international agreements. While systems have been made robust, not many conceptual nuances have been incorporated in the Act to cover future developments. The Nirbhaya case was only a push that led to early notification of the rules to the act, but did not lead to its redrafting based on twenty-first century For example, the third gender has only been recognized recently by the Supreme Court, and it was not mentioned under the 2013 Act. The 2013 Act nevertheless provides a punishment for false complaints and requires confidentiality to be maintained, which are strong checks against misuse of rights, if implemented properly. Taking cue from this, companies are voluntarily adding supportive frameworks for gender-neutral protection from sexual or even other kinds of harassment.

If you are stuck or face a breakdown, schedule a call with Pallavi by writing to [email protected]

(With special thanks to Pallavi Pareek, Co-founder, iPleaders.)


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