#MeToo movement: How India Inc is handling sexual harassment at workplace

A fine indicator of summer’s approach is when most Indian businesses become suddenly eager to discuss women’s issues, usually in the fortnight ahead of March 8, which marks International Women’s Day. November feels cold by comparison, as several companies reject requests to talk about their measures for tackling workplace sexual harassment, or hesitate to do so. The press relations manager for a snacks company even wonders aloud: “Why is this story being done now? As far as I know, the #MeToo topic has died down.” If the recent acceleration of the movement against sexual assault in the country was an opportunity to enter the discourse, few in India Inc are availing of it publicly just yet.

Significant changes, however, have been coming to the attention of employees in some organisations over the last month. As women across sectors brought to light their repeated brushes with unwanted advances and sexual power-play, the atmosphere in Indian offices has been charged with disbelief, nervousness and, later, the stray #MeToo joke. Posters related to the law countering sexual harassment at the workplace have appeared on notice boards. Emails have landed in employee inboxes that outline relevant company policies and identify the in-house and external members of the internal complaints committee (ICC) which would probe cases. The subject has been broached formally or informally during meetings. Legal experts have visited to explain the kind of behaviours that may constitute sexual harassment.

Many of these measures are in keeping with the mandatory duties and rules of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition, and Redressal) Act of 2013, known popularly as the POSH Act. They simply had not been applied stringently by some sectors including media. “In media, advertising and public relations the jokes do cross the line sometimes,” says journalist-turned-entrepreneur Ritu Kant Ojha. His young branding and PR company, Proact, is planning periodical open sessions on the nuances of the #MeToo campaign, and making a short film on workplace sexual harassment that will be viewed by employees together. It advises against calling female colleagues after 7 pm unless unavoidable. For a week now at a prominent event management company, batches of employees and managers have attended three-hour sittings to understand how sexism works.

“A lot of respected names have been pulled up, and organisations are worried that it could be happening in their workplaces without them knowing,” says Nirmala Menon, whose Bengaluru-based Interweave Consulting advises firms on diversity management. She reports a 20 per cent spike in requests, including from smaller companies, to conduct sensitisation sessions. Rituparna Chakraborty, co-founder of the staffing firm TeamLease, observes that companies are being more cognisant while making hiring decisions.

 
By most accounts, it is still a sensitive subject. Some large technology, financial and multinational firms — which have ICCs in place and include a module on sexual harassment in their induction — have made no fresh effort to revisit the topic. Most claim to have in place a ”zero tolerance” policy but do not share details on its particulars: of a dozen companies contacted, the majority cited paucity of time or remained unresponsive.

While the definitive laws of the POSH Act replaced the Vishaka guidelines five years ago, awareness has percolated slowly. A study by FICCI and EY revealed that, as of 2015, roughly one in three companies had still not established an ICC. It also said that 40 per cent of firms had not explained the legal provisions to ICC members, and 35 per cent were not aware of the penalties for not adhering to the law.

Startups have struggled with the issue as, quite often in early-stage firms, when hierarchies are still far from formalised, POSH implementation is relegated to the sidelines. “We have seen situations where the founders have called us up and told us that they have received a complaint but they don’t know how to proceed,” shares Sohini Mandal from NovoJuris Legal, a law firm based in Bengaluru and Mumbai. “This makes the process very reactive rather than being proactive.”

Bigger players like online home store Urban Ladder try to curb casual sexism or harassment by actively discouraging sexist dialogue and conversations. “We are not perfect but we are extremely proactive in building an equal, just and safe workplace,” says Rajiv Srivatsa, co-founder of Urban Ladder. A yoga studio in Bengaluru set up an ICC and brought in a non-profit, Enfold India, as an external advisor only after women came together recently to complain against a male instructor. The women also detailed their ordeal in a comic titled The Illustrated Women’s Guide to Yogabuse.

According to a gender diversity report by TeamLease from 2016, 72 per cent of women respondents lacked faith in the organisational measures to deal with sexual harassment. The gap in satisfaction, it concluded, was because employers are “getting there but are more compliance-oriented than oriented towards equality”. Doubting one’s own judgment is the other obstacle leading to under-reporting of sexual harassment. After the global #MeToo movement revealed the long-standing, multi-pronged nature of the problem, the attitude of women and their employers appears to be shifting. Voices against sexual harassment at the workplace have grown stronger, says TeamLease’s Chakraborty.

In April this year at the Kolkata office of a hospitality startup, a junior employee was quickly fired after multiple women expressed discomfort at his gaze and comments. The human resources manager of a large Indian manufacturing company says human resource committees are communicating more after #MeToo but real change will be gauged by how companies deal with a complaint from someone lowest in the pecking order against someone at the highest levels. “An uptick in communication does not mean the end of misogyny. Gender sensitisation, while on the rise, is still not an unquestionable priority for Indian companies,” he says. Indeed, vindication was hard-won in a case in July, when a 25-year-old auditor in the Bengaluru office of an accounting firm complained that a senior partner had molested her. She relocated to the company’s branch in her hometown to reassure her parents, and gave evidence of threats and indecent messages that led to his removal in three months.

If a redressal mechanism is used regularly, that means it is working, says S Venkatesh, group president for HR at the RPG group, adding that a culture of trust and respect has been a safeguard. At group company Zensar, which has 35-40 per cent women professionals, and at its Harrisons Malayalam plantations, which have a sizeable population of female blue-collar workers, employees reportedly feel comfortable bringing up incidents. At the latter company, where unions were typically the first point of contact, women have been informed that they can take cases directly to an internal complaints committee, too. “The law states cases must be lodged within three months from an alleged incident but we are willing to go beyond the book,” Venkatesh says.

Proactiveness would help, notes Interweave’s Menon, sharing the example of a company which became aware of an offender through a pulse survey it sent around unprompted by specific incidents. After her manager in a Mumbai-based advertising agency encouraged employees to voice their concerns, Priya Saha (name changed on request) joined others in demanding that a male colleague be sensitised on respecting personal space. This was a significant improvement over her experience at her first job eight years ago at a marketing firm where she remained silent about over-friendly messages being sent on the company chat messenger, not knowing whom to alert.

Solving the problem requires investments that not all companies have the willingness and resources for, says social scientist Anagha Sarpotdar. Since 2005, she has been doing the “impossible” task of studying sexual harassment at Indian workplaces, where access is limited, using her activism and experiences as the external member on complaints committees in her research. While everyone agrees that companies have to do the work of addressing areas where the law falls short, a look at several publicly available policies shows a reproduction of rules from the act. “It is usually copy-paste,” says Sarpotdar. A decision prevalent in some companies is making the policy “gender-neutral”, whereas a Delhi High Court ruling from 2010 recognised that men are rarely victims of sexual assault. This is perhaps in response to fears that POSH favours women employees, which are inevitably voiced by men during briefings, according to an HR professional at a publishing house.

Across the board, Sarpotdar identifies a need to review the profile of external members, worried by developments like a citizens’ group in Bengaluru advertising that graduates would be trained to fill that post through a one-day course. “The tone of any investigation is set by the external member. They have to inspire internal members to be empathetic but not emotional, and to be strong and legally correct.” Credible external members would check other areas in which workplaces err in tackling sexual harassment, such as by allowing people to resign while investigating a complaint against them. State governments and local women’s commissions should step in too, implementing fines for violations.

Anjuli Pandit agrees. The former Tata group staffer recently made public her struggle with sexual harassment by ex-Taj Hotels CEO and MD Rakesh Sarna, and an unsatisfactory trial which eventually forced her to leave the company. She now heads sustainability initiatives for a UK-based corporate firm and advocates safer work environments. She questions whether a committee with a majority membership of employees, who may feel loyal to business continuity “allows them to view the situation from an ethical perspective without being coloured by short-term profit pressures”. A better idea, in her view, is for policymakers, victims and HR professionals to come together and work out new membership requirements.

Public pressure is essential for companies to improve their processes against sexual harassment and misogyny in general, adds Pandit. “Unfortunately, in India, our companies are still responding defensively, and I am not sure if they are ready for this introspection.” Western companies are compelled to respond with honesty and recourse because they have understood the damage to reputation that comes from ignoring the problem. Earlier in the week, Google announced it was changing its sexual harassment policies after 20,000 of its employees worldwide, including in India, staged walkouts to protest the company’s award of an exit package to a former executive accused of harassment. “Only when corporate India starts to see a shift in consumer and investor expectations on how they eradicate gender discrimination, will we actually see them embrace the opportunity to detangle misogyny from their systems and processes.”

By exposing individual offenders, #MeToo has stoked emotions and pushed the countering of sexual assault higher up in company agendas. The true test of the sincerity of businesses, and indeed of journalism, will be how they address the problem in periods when it is not hotly debated.