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Rediff.com  » Getahead » #MeToo: How to deal with sexual harassment at your workplace

#MeToo: How to deal with sexual harassment at your workplace

Last updated on: October 10, 2018 10:10 IST

As women employees across organisations complain of sexual harassment at the workplace, here are some things you must know.

Sexual harassment at the workplace isn't new and, much like moral policing, usually goes unnoticed.

It is only when women speak out that it becomes the focus of public attention.

What is sexual harassment?

Be wary of your colleagues

Photograph*: Anurag Agnihotri/Creative Commons

"Sexual harassment doesn't start all of a sudden," points out Pramod Kumar Srivastava, founder of PKS Management Consultants, a business management consulting firm based in Bengaluru.

"In most cases, it begins subtly. The boss asking you out for a cup of coffee, then a drink and so on and so forth."

It happens at three levels.

"It could be your senior, your peers or someone very junior to you, like a driver or a security guard," Srivastava says.

"With the boss it will be veiled, with the peers not so much. But as you go down the social ladder, the manifestation of sexual harassment will be more violent as was the case with the girl in Bengaluru who was raped by her office driver."

To prevent being sexually harassed, Srivastava says, it is important to first understand where it will happen and who your possible predators are.

"If you know these things, you will be in a better position to avoid being harassed and confront him if need be."

In her book Woman On Top: How To Get Ahead At Work, Seema Goswami writes: 'Women develop an in-built radar for unwanted attention as they grow up.

'And by the time they are ready to join the work force, it is so well-honed that they can spot a sexual harasser even before he's finished mentally undressing them.'

She says a woman can be perfectly comfortable receiving a slap on the back from a male co-worker because he doesn't give out a threatening vibe. But she could cringe in her seat when someone looks over her shoulder to check her computer screen 'because you are convinced he is peering down your cleavage (and you know what? He probably is)'.

Srivastava says the law is on the side of women here. "Our courts have decreed that the lady has all the rights to decide what she is or is not comfortable with."

In her book, Goswami writes: 'It is harassment if someone invades your personal space, either literally or metaphorically.

'If someone brushes against you persistently, touches you inappropriately, crowds you in your work space, then you have legitimate cause to complain.

'It is harassment when someone displays too much personal interest in you or your sex life, even after you have indicated your discomfort.

'If somebody makes comments about your appearance, asks you when you lost your virginity, whether you and your boyfriend go all the way, then you have adequate grounds to complain even if no actual sexual proposition has been made.

'The fact that your privacy is being invaded by sexual innuendo is grounds enough to prove harassment.'

She spells it out:

'You are being sexually harassed:

• If anyone displays dirty pictures, pornographic material or cracks sexually explicit jokes around you.
• If anyone uses deliberately offensive, sexually charged language around you despite your evident discomfort.
• If anyone displays too much interest in your sex life (or lack thereof) and persistently asks you questions or makes remarks of a personal nature.
• If anyone invades your personal space by brushing up against you, touching you inappropriately or crowding you in any way.
• If anyone makes sexual advances, with the tacit understanding that there is something in it for you.
• If anyone persecutes you for denying them sexual favours, either by picking on you or denying you a raise or a promotion, or even threatening to fire you.

Draw the line

As Srivastava pointed out earlier, when a senior or a peer is involved, the harassment begins very subtly.

Being sensitive to the people around you is crucial.

According to him, "No one will simply come and kiss you out of the blue.

"People will test the waters; they won't just drag you in a corner and rape you."

"They will start by casually brushing past you or trying to hold your hand, or such seemingly small and insignificant gestures.

"Seeing how you react, they will then decide their further course of action.

"Learn to nip the problem in the bud. Confront the harasser. Start by reacting strongly, verbally. Muster up the courage to say that you are not comfortable with what they said or did.

"Most of these predators are cowards; they don't like confrontation. So you should give them just that.

"And sometimes a strong slap is the best medicine."

As Goswami explains in her book, the last thing to do in the face of sexual harassment is ignore it and hope it will go away.

'It won't,' she writes. 'Instead, your harasser will interpret your silence as acquiescence or even fear, and will be emboldened to escalate the levels of harassment.'

Confront the oppressor

Sexual harassment at work

Photograph: Kind courtesy Officer's Choice Blue

The key, Goswami says in her book, is to be polite but firm.

'Remain calm, take a deep breath and tell your harasser exactly how you feel.

'It is not enough to just brush his hand off your back when he propels you forward at a meeting.

'Turn to him with a smile and say, 'I'm sorry, but would you mind removing your hand from my back. I know you don't mean any harm, but it makes me a bit uncomfortable.'

'If he stands too close to you in the lift or presses up against the back of your chair, don't just edge away. Turn around, look him in the eye, and say, 'I'm sure you don't realise it, but you are crowding me here. Do you mind standing back a little? I'd really appreciate that.'

'Remain as non-confrontational as possible. Keep your tone apologetic, to convey that you believe that his action is inadvertent rather than deliberate.

'Indicate by your body language that you don't feel threatened by him.

'If he becomes defensive, assure him that you haven't taken any offence.

'If he becomes aggressive -- as some people tend to do when confronted -- don't respond in kind.

'Just reiterate that you just want to lay down some boundaries, so that there is no prospect of confusion and misunderstanding in the future.'

Such an approach may or may not work, so when is it time to escalate matters?

'That really depends on your tolerance levels,' Goswami writes in her book.

'Some women consider themselves quite capable of dealing with the occasional sexual advance on their own... And on most occasions, a stinging retort does tend to serve the purpose.

'But there are others who don't believe in ignoring the slightest indiscretion. And they are well within their rights to go to the authorities at the first sign of trouble.'

Srivastava agrees. He says, "Ideally, collect proof of your harassment. Put it all together and write to the human resources department.

"It is crucial that you don't get swayed by your emotions when you're filing the complaint with HR.

"Write the events as they happened, objectively, as you would file an FIR for example.

"Do not make any subjective remarks about your predator because HR will try to use it against you."

"Remember, no employer wants to come out in the open with cases of sexual harassment."

Srivastava continues: "Don't expect them to be on your side. HR is notoriously on the side of the management.

"They will try to tell you that it was possibly a case of misunderstanding and convince you to withdraw the complaint.

"The key is to not buckle under pressure and, more importantly, not feel ashamed."

Goswami elaborates in her book.

'If you feel that there is an element of character assassination at work, you could get sympathetic seniors or colleagues in the office to vouch for your integrity.

'If there are other women in the office who have suffered similarly, persuade them to speak up so that you can establish a pattern.

'Be prepared to be asked probing, even embarrassing, questions. Reply as dispassionately as possible. Try and retain an air of clinical calm.

'If things go your way, and your harasser is shown the door, well and good.

'But don't take victory in the proceedings for granted.

'It is quite possible that the committee will decide that you have no case. In such an event, you need to have a Plan B ready.

'If you can continue working in the same office without being unduly stressed, then there is no reason why you should not do so.

'But if things get too embarrassing, or if it is suggested to you discreetly that you may be happier somewhere else, you will need to go looking for another job.

'So, keep a resume ready, get testimonials from those seniors who are on your side, and don't be scared to start over.

'You may have lost the battle, but you have won the war by having the courage to speak out and stand up for yourself. And that warm glow of satisfaction will stay with you throughout your career, no matter where you work.'

Don't invite trouble

Srivastava recollects an office camping trip during which after several rounds of drinks, everyone decided to call it a day and went back to their respective tents.

"Much after the party was over, a young lady came over to our tent (that only had men) and asked us if we had more alcohol.

"I was quite taken aback. Perhaps I was being too conservative but I didn't quite appreciate it.

"According to me this is the kind of stuff you should avoid doing when you're with your colleagues even if it is a picnic," he says.

"You ought to get a feel of what kind of place your office is.

"If it's the kind where people crack off-colour jokes (and there are such offices), don't feel the pressure to join in."

Goswami too has similar words of advice in her book.

'The key to avoiding the prospect of sexual harassment -- so far as you can -- is to maintain a professional front at all times,' she says.

'Even if you are at the annual office party, where the idea is to let your hair down and have fun, don't get pissed and jump on to the bar to give everyone the benefit of your pole-dancing routine.

'If you are attending an office retreat at a beach resort, don't pack that bikini that leaves nothing to the imagination. Wear a sensible one-piece instead.'

She does however point out that it is crucial not to treat every flirty remark as a precursor to sexual harassment.

It is important according to Goswami to 'treat it at face value.'

She advises: 'Don't cry sexual harassment at the slightest provocation, or you will end up as the little girl who cried 'wolf' too often.

'And when and if the serious stuff really happens, nobody will take you seriously.'

All of which is great advice for the victim, but why should the onus always be on women to behave conservatively? Why not on men to do the same?

The most effective way to stop sexual harassment at the workplace is for the management to send out strong signals whenever possible that it takes such harassment seriously and will not tolerate it in its male employees.

Taking women's complaints seriously -- particularly complaints of senior male staff threatening to use their clout to make or break careers -- and creating an atmosphere in the office that is against sexist jokes, remarks and innuendoes, will be much more effective in curbing harassment and making women comfortable in their work environment.

 All images published for representational purposes only.

Divya Nair / Rediff.com