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What you must know about sexual harassment

By Seema Goswami
February 02, 2007 13:07 IST
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Part I: Are you being sexually abused at work?
Part II: Sexual harassment: What you can do  

Women are not the only ones claiming sexual harassment at work. Men, too, have complained of being sexually targeted by their lady bosses.


In her book Woman On Top: How To Get Ahead At Work, Seema Goswami advises lady bosses how to handle the situation with finesse.


An excerpt:


It's not just women who complain about being harassed at the workplace. With female bosses becoming more and more common, men often have the same complaints as well. So, if you are fairly high up on the food chain or the Lady Boss herself, then it is not beyond the realm of possibility that you may be accused of being a sexual harasser. The office is an equal-opportunity zone these days -- well, at least theoretically -- so men have as much right to feel sexually targeted as women. And while some may be too macho to make an issue out of this (complaining is for sissies, isn't it?), there will be others who will feel no embarrassment about making their feelings known.

Could this happen to you despite your best efforts? Yes, it certainly could, even if you haven't indulged in any sexual harassment. Sex is a powerful weapon to use against a woman, and some men have no compunctions about ruining reputations to settle scores. But let's not get too judgmental about that, because the workplace is also littered with women who cry 'sexual harassment' when things aren't going their way.

But how you can avoid becoming an easy mark? First off, draw up some simple rules for engaging with your staff and stick to them.

  • Don't have closed-door meeting with individual members of your workplace. If you have to tick someone off and don't want any witnesses, ostentatiously leave the door ajar to indicate that you have nothing to hide. 
  • Don't socialise with staff members on a one-on-one basis, even if it is just a working lunch. You never know when that could be misinterpreted and twisted around to use against you. Take your staff out in groups -- small or large -- but pay them individual attention so that they feel special. 
  • Don't offer to drop off or pick up members of your staff in an effort to be helpful. It may give an entirely wrong impression to the rest of the office.
  • Don't work late at office with just one of your staff members. He could spread any kind of stories about you later, and you will have no way of disproving his version. Ask another member of the team to stay back or keep your secretary around to play gooseberry.
  • Don't allow things to get too cosy and personal on out-of-town business trips. No downing drinks at the hotel bar, no inviting him up to your room for a nightcap, no confiding in him about how your husband doesn't seem to love you any more. Even if you are not coming on to him, he may think you are. And we all know how badly men react to rejection.

Let's assume that you've followed all these rules, played the game by the book, and yet a member of your staff has accused you of harassing him sexually. How do you cope? First off, remember that you are not guilty. Even if it is all in his head, you did not put it there. Your conscience is clear and you have absolutely nothing to hide.

Take the senior management into confidence at the first whiff of trouble. Bringing them up to speed on how the situation developed, detailing every interaction you have had with the complainant. If you have any theories as to why he is making these allegations -- he fears he may not be promoted, his rival has got a plum posting, etc -- share these with them. If you have any witnesses who can testify that no impropriety occurred, parade them now. That way, your case will be on its way to being established even before an official committee is formed to look into the allegation.

At this stage, the odds are that you will carry the day. But there is a good chance that the complainant will be given the benefit of the doubt and allowed to stay on. Most companies will do the decent thing and transfer him so that he doesn't report to you. But if he is still a part of your department, you may have to deal with him occasionally. Don't allow your feelings of rancour to colour these exchanges. Be as dispassionate and calm as you can. Don't give him the satisfaction of knowing that he has rattled you. Appearing above it all is the best revenge.

In the best-case scenario, of course, he would be asked to leave the company and find a job elsewhere. But that has its downside as well. Now, he really has nothing left to lose, so you can expect the most vicious rumours and the most offensive innuendo to do the rounds. Be prepared to have your reputation torn to shreds. There is nothing you can do about this short of sue for slander -- and that would only give the rumours a fresh lease of life. So, turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to all those stories swirling around you. Remember, this too shall pass.

There's always the possibility that even if you are cleared of the charge because of insufficient evidence, you feel that the whiff of sexual harassment will always cling to you. And then there's the worst-case scenario in which the committee seems to agree with the complainant's version of events. What are your options in that case?

In the end, it all depends on how thick your skin is. If you can ride through the initial months of discomfort with the necessary insouciance, well then, you should stay on and make this work. If you feel completely demoralised and shattered by the lack of trust displayed by the company, then it may be time to pack away your feelings of disillusionment along with your personal effects, clear your desk as well as your mind, and move on.

The legal position

~ The Supreme Court of India's guidelines on sexual harassment

Vishaka vs State of Rajasthan and Others, 1997, was a leading sexual harassment case concerning a worker for the State Women's Development Programme who was gang-raped as revenge for her campaigning against child marriage. The victim did not get justice in the Rajasthan High Court and the rapists were let off. This led to a women's organisation called Vishaka filing a public interest litigation (PIL) in the Supreme Court of India. In its judgement, the Supreme Court of India developed legally binding guidelines which are applicable in the workplace and other institutions, such as universities, and these are summarised below.

~ Sexual harassment includes 'such unwelcome sexually determined behaviour' such as:

(a) Physical contact

(b) A demand or request for sexual favours

(c) Sexually coloured remarks

(d) Showing pornography

(e) Any other unwelcome physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of a sexual nature

~ Any woman who works -- either on full salary, for an honorarium, or as a volunteer -- in any organisation (government, private or in the unorganised sector) can claim protection under these guidelines. It is the duty of her employer or the institution to prevent sexual harassment and to have procedures in place for the resolution of all complaints. 

~ It is the duty of all institutions -- both in the public and private sector -- to undertake preventive measures in this respect. These include:

a) Express prohibition of sexual harassment should be notified and circulated.

b) Prohibitionof sexual harassment should be included in the rules and regulations of government and public sector bodies.

c) Private employers should include prohibition of sexual harassment in the standing orders under the Industrial Employment (Standing Orders) Act, 1946.

d) Appropriate work conditions should be provided for work, leisure, health and hygiene to ensure that women don't have a hostile environment at work. No woman employee should have reasonable grounds to believe that she is disadvantaged in connection with her employment.

~ Once a complaint has been registered, the company must comply with the following.

a) Set up a Complaints Committee, headed by a woman. Not less than half its members should be women.

b) This committee should include an NGO or other organisation that is familiar with the issue of sexual harassment.

c) The complaint should be dealt with within a certain time period.

d) The complaint procedure must be kept confidential

e) The complaint or witnesses must not be victimised or discriminated against.

f) An annual report should be submitted to the government department concerned by the committee detailing the complaints and actions taken on these.

~ In the public or government sector, when the offence is tantamount to misconduct under service rules, disciplinary action must be taken. If the conduct in question is an offence under the Indian Penal Code, the employer must register a complaint with the appropriate authority.

~ The victim shall have the option to seek transfer, either for herself or the harasser. 

~ The issue of sexual harassment should be discussed affirmatively at workers meetings, between employers and employees and on other appropriate platforms. 

~ These guidelines set down by the Court should be prominently notified so that female employees and their employers are aware of their rights.

~ The employer should assist those affected by sexual harassment by outsiders or third parties.

~ The central and state governments should adopt measures, including legislation, to ensure that these guidelines are observed by private employers.

Part I: Are you being sexually abused at work?
Part II: Sexual harassment: What you can do

~ Chat about your work-related problems with the author on February 6 between 2 and 3 pm.

~ Excerpted from Woman On Top: How To Get Ahead At Work by Seema Goswami, published by Random House India, Rs 200, with the publisher's permission.

~ Would you like to buy this book?

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Seema Goswami