The Vishaka Guidelines of 1997 and the subsequent Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, have gone to great lengths to specify systems, processes and protocols to make the workplace safer and our lawyer friends tell us, are among the best such laws in the world.
While the law is quite rigorous, the implementation especially at the local district and state levels is still nascent. However, many leading corporates and institutions have gone ahead and implemented the Act in letter and spirit, often going beyond the law to cover all genders and taking a larger workplace safety view beyond sexual harassment.
That said, all too often, reporting and getting action on sexual harassment is a real ordeal, even in work spaces where all the policies and protocols are in place.
Often, the idea of where the incident(s) took place and whether they were at the office premises become the first line of questioning, and despite the growing virtual workspaces and blurring of boundaries between work and private spaces, and the wide definition of 'in the course of employment,' there is a reluctance to fully investigate a complaint if the incident happened outside the office. Secondly, despite very specific guidelines on how cases are to be documented, confidentiality is to be maintained, closure obtained and communicated, often action is through undocumented meetings, verbal commitments and actions oriented towards creating a 'compromise' especially where no hard evidence exists. Thirdly, leaks in the process mean the 'news' gets out, other employees take sides or form opinions and the work environment could become hostile for either or both the parties.
In the process, the complainant who is reporting an offense ends up feeling victimized all over again, or - on the other hand, the one complained about finds their reputation tarnished even before they have had the slightest chance to defend themselves. Many times, the process is exhausting emotionally and the parties just want to close and move out or move on, and that then can leave the complaints committee with questions of what is fair or just, and if they really addressed the complaint fully.
Point is, creating safe working spaces need to go far beyond documenting policies and procedures. Sensitizing all the people involved in the process is critical to its success, as is ensuring confidentiality and maintaining rigorous documentation. Wide-spread communication and keeping up awareness on the rights & responsibilities of all staff is important.
That said, while there are some baseless and malicious complaints intended only to hurt, the larger reality is that most complaints are genuine and yet victim-blaming continues to be the norm. The complainant's personal history, habits, prior relationships, performance history at work, history with the person in question and everything else gets dredged up. That needs to stop for more people to feel confident enough about the system and the processes to report any issues, and for the work place to be fully safe.
This post is inspired by a social media campaign by Himani Auplish aiming to increase awareness among the people about harassment after the harassment
Ajanta, Mahesh and other InnerSight counsellors and guest contributors are happy to share their thoughts here.