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Is India Inc geared up to deal with sexual harassment cases?

November 25, 2013 11:51 IST

Is India Inc geared up to deal with sexual harassment cases?

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Business Standard takes stock of India Inc's track record when it comes to living up to the letter and spirit of regulations governing sexual harassment at the workplace

The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, has been in the works since 2005. After going through various revisions over the years, it got Presidential assent in April this year after Parliament's seal of approval.

However, seven months later, the Act is yet to get notified by the Centre or get enforced. 

Till the time the Act comes into force, the Vishakha Guidelines - issued by the Supreme Court in 1997 - is mandatory on all companies, including those in private, public and non-government space, in matters relating to compliance of workplace related sexual harassment issues.

The Delhi rape-murder incident brought stricter provisions in Indian Penal Code, recognising sexual harassment as a criminal offence.

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Photographs: Uttam Ghosh/Rediff

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Meeting the guidelines

Social sector workers, lawyers and many HR experts agree that India Inc in general needs to do a lot of catch up when it comes to sensitising the workplace on gender harassment related issues.

"India Inc is yet to start a conversation within its workplace on issues related to sexual harassment," notes human rights lawyer Vrinda Grover.

Vishakha Guidelines laid down by Supreme Court

  • Sexual harassment defined directly or by implication
  • Preventive steps for public sector bodies and private employers laid down
  • Framework for complaint mechanism created
  • Complaints committee to be set up, where necessary
  • In case of third party harassment, employer or person in charge to assist the victim
  • Multinational companies and many large Indian corporate houses are ahead in this curve, with many of them following global best practices.

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Photographs: Uttam Ghosh/Rediff

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Is India Inc geared up to deal with sexual harassment cases?

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Almost all of them claim to have put in place processes to deal with workplace related harassment complaints, along with a redressal mechanism. However the vast majority of small and medium-sized businesses largely pay lip service to any institutional mechanism to deal with workplace related sexual harassment issues.

"India Inc is not taking the issue of sexual harassment seriously enough," says T V Mohandas Pai, chairman, Manipal Global Education, and former Board member of Infosys Limited. Only when sexual harassment victims start claiming monetary damages from companies for not putting in adequate checks and balances, and for the mental and physical turmoil, will Indian companies sit up and take notice, says Pai. 

Just having an institutional mechanism to deal with sexual harassment related complaints is not enough. After the infamous Phaneesh Murthy incident in 2001, Infosys had to undertake an audit of its sexual harassment policies and the mechanisms in place.

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Image: Phaneesh Murthy
Photographs: Reuters

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India Inc needs to do a lot more than what they are doing currently, says Hema Ravichandar, strategic HR advisor, and former HR head of Infosys. The sensitising process has to start off at induction level. Workplace related sexual harassment policies clearly spelt out through FAQs and do's & don'ts widely publicised in the company intranet and the notice board, she says.

Frontline supervisors too need to be trained on how to handle such complaints. Lira Goswami, founding partner, Associated Law Advisors, says that Indian corporates are not well prepared to deal with sexual harassment related issues. "There is a tendency to grossly under report such incidents," says Goswami.

HR experts and social workers say many of these harassment related issues crop up on account of failed office romance or due to a relationship gone sour. This leads to many companies taking to moral policing on what constitutes "good" or "unhealthy" relationships between employees.

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Photographs: Uttam Ghosh/Rediff

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Most of the time companies have a tendency to ask both the victim and the alleged perpetrator to resign and move on.

"This could be a major deterrent for any prospective victim to come forward and file a complaint," say Grover. In most cases the perpetrators are let off after a reprimand, say many HR practitioners.

Another deterrent in this regard is that it is not mandatory on any company to report in its annual report or to the board how many sexual harassment related complaints have come up in a year and how they have been resolved.

However, some large corporates and business houses do that as part of their business ethic practice.

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Action taken so far

When Business Standard approached around a dozen-odd large corporate houses on their sexual harassment policy and redressal mechanism, most of them said that they have well laid out policies as part of their business ethics.

ICICI Bank, for instance, has a two-tier system in place. There is a committee, which comprises members from within the bank, that enquire once a complaint is made. It submits the findings to a supervisory committee, which comprises external members. 

The supervisory committee, based on the findings, decides the final action. Of the 20-25 such complaints that the bank typically receives in a year, generally five or six are of serious nature, says K Ramkumar, executive director, ICICI Bank. In cases of conclusive evidence the person is asked to leave the organisation.

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Photographs: Uttam Ghosh/Rediff

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In Tata Steel, sexual harassment policy falls under the Tata Code of Conduct and has a redressal committee in place.

According to the Tata Steel's Business Responsibility Report for 2012-13, eight cases of sexual harassment were received during the year. FMCG major HUL has a 24-hour helpline to deal with such complaints. It is not mandatory on the complainant to disclose her identity to encourage reporting of such cases, the company says.

Infosys sensitises its employees about its "zero tolerance" philosophy on sexual harassment through various class room and e-learning programmes, poster campaigns and emailers.

"The company also hosts all the information such as the policy, FAQs, in a prominent spot on the company intranet for easy reference," a company spokesperson says.

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At telecom major Bharti Airtel, such complaints are dealt with by Group's Ombudsperson Office to whom such complaints could be sent directly. The Ombudsperson reports directly to the group chairman. Construction and engineering behemoth L&T has had no such complaints in the past three years, says its spokesperson. The group claims to follow all the requirements of the Vishakha guidelines.

However, almost all the HR experts and social sector activists Business Standard spoke to say India Inc is sitting on a minefield of its own making by not taking issues related to gender equality in workplace seriously enough.

The Sexual Harassment of Women at work place (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013

The Act has been passed by Parliament and received the President's assent in April 2013, however it has not yet been notified by the central government.

So, it has not been enforced.

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Photographs: Uttam Ghosh/Rediff

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What constitutes sexual harassment at workplace

Under the Sexual Harassment of Women at work place (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 all organisations, including the government need to have an Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) in case there is an allegation against an employee.

The ICC is a committee made by the employer for dealing with complaints against the employees. At least half of the committee members have to be women, with a women presiding officer.

One member of the ICC should either be from an NGO or should be familiar with issues relating to sexual harassment.

For all allegations against the employer the matter goes to a Local Complaints Committee (LCC). The LCC is required to be constituted in each state. This means that the district officer nominated by the state government would constitute an LCC in each district.

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Photographs: Uttam Ghosh/Rediff

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Current legal provisions for a victim

Even though the Act has not been notified by the central government, the guidelines issued by a three-judge bench of Supreme Court in 1997 make it mandatory for all employers to have a mechanism for dealing with sexual harassment cases. In case an offense is made out under IPC, the employer has to help the victim to make a formal complaint before the local police station.

The victim can file an FIR under IPC depending on the type of harassment she has faced. These many include offenses under section 294 (Obscene act), section 354 (Outraging the modesty of a women), section 509 (Words gesture or act intended to insult the modesty of a women)

Are the Vishakha guidelines mandatory for all companies?

It is mandatory not only for all companies but the government and public sector undertakings also

Does the Sustainability Report or Annual Report mandate any company to give a status-check relating to such complaints

It may be desirable to give details of the mechanisms to deal with sexual harassment at work place and the number of complaints filed in the sustainability report.


Photographs: Uttam Ghosh/Rediff

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