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Sexual Harassment at Workplace: Act, Prevention, Prohibition. How to Tackle It

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Disha Suresh
October 16, 2018

Sexual harassment is a harrowing issue that has plagued workplaces for decades.

In recent years, leading companies around the world have been exposed due to such negative workplace incidents.

No matter what country you are in, you might have heard the news about unsafe working environments and experiences in the same.

60 per cent of women say that they have experienced unwanted sexual attention, coercion, and remarks in the workplace. However, many end up never reporting this offensive behaviour to their employer.

It is the duty of any company to make its employees feel safe and confident enough to report such misconduct.

So, let us explore the provisions you can take to create a safe environment and the disciplinary actions you can take against harassment at workplace.

First, let us understand the legal definition of workplace sexual harassment and the government's laws and protections offered against this act.

What is Workplace Sexual Harassment?

As per the Vishaka Guidelines laid down by the Supreme Court of India, sexual harassment includes any unwelcome sexually determined behaviour (whether directly or by implication):

  • physical contact and advances
  • a demand or request for sexual favours
  • sexually coloured remarks
  • displaying pornography
  • any other unwelcome physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of sexual nature

There are two legally recognized forms of sexual harassment.

1. Quid Pro Quo Harassment

This form of harassment occurs when employers or supervisors attach a specific occupational outcome to the victim granting sexual favours.

Quid pro quo means something for something. So, the employer might ask the employee for sexual favours in return for a promotion, a pay raise, or a positive performance appraisal.

2. Hostile Work Environment

A hostile work environment is created when sexual conduct interferes with the victim's workplace productivity and psychological well-being.

This type of behaviour can create an offensive work environment. This includes a range of behaviours, for example, co-workers making comments about an individual's body or clothing, passing "harmless" remarks that might be seen as offensive, and so on.

A hostile environment can also entail threatening physical behaviour, which is humiliating and harmful to the physical and mental functioning of an individual.

Legislation to Prohibit Harassment

Since women are the key targets of sexual misconduct, the Indian government has placed certain provisions.

According to articles 14, 15, and 21, " Workplace sexual harassment is a form of gender discrimination that violates a woman's fundamental right to equality and right to life."

In 2013, the government of India put in place the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act. This was enacted specifically by the Ministry of Women and Child Development.

Under this act, every company with more than 10 employees is supposed to constitute an internal committee for the management of such sensitive cases.

The government is responsible for spreading awareness, keeping records or data, and implementing measures in the direction of the POSH act.

However, it is observed that this law is not effectively implemented in workplaces.

Hence, the responsibility of creating a safe and well-educated workplace falls on private employers themselves. So, let us look at how managers and the HR department can help in this process.


sexual harassment at workplace

Company's Role in Sexual Harassment Prevention

Sexual harassment has been a plague-like issue that is reported in countless organizations, whether big or small. Recent years have seen a rise in sexual harassment complaints in many countries.

This can be a positive trend towards increased reporting or a negative trend towards an increase in incidence. No matter what the unwelcome conduct is, having to deal with such sensitive issues with civility can be a liability for employers.

So, here is how a company can work towards creating a harassment-free environment.

1. Establish a Strict Policy

Sexual harassment at the workplace takes place even when there is a national act for prevention and prohibition of the offence. This called for stricter procedures in a business.

The first step towards curbing harassment is adopting and establishing a strict policy and code of verbal and physical conduct.

Most companies have a handbook that states the different fundamental rights of employees and the procedures to follow when reporting such acts.

It is best to dedicate an entire section to an anti-sexual harassment policy. This includes:

  • A comprehensive statement about the company's commitment towards sexual harassment prevention, a guarantee of disciplinary action against any form of sexual harassment, and a zero-tolerance notice
  • A definition of sexual harassment, the types of conduct that are unwelcome, and the recognition of both offensive physical conduct, verbal misconduct, and digital harassment incidents
  • The formal and informal processes of filing and reporting sexual harassment claims and grievances, the appropriate legal action, sexual harassment laws and rights, and the services available to the employee
  • A list of disciplinary actions against violations performed by the harasser and a statement saying that the harasser is liable to any penalty mentioned on the list

A strict policy will reduce the opportunity of harassment in workplaces and will protect the human rights of female employees and male employees alike.

2. Educate Your Staff

It is extremely important to train your workforce to combat a hostile work environment and acts of discrimination, as they are the fabric of all workplaces.

Provide training to employees in your office, that covers nearly all the aspects of sexual harassment prevention. These harassment prevention training sessions must be compulsory for all employees.

Firstly, you can train your workforce to report sexual harassment incidents when they observe them. It is vital to act as an ally to the victim so that they can take legal actions against the harasser.

Secondly, train your employees to follow the sexual harassment policies set by the organization and to report any breach to supervisors, even if it occurs to someone else. Advice your employees to speak out when such incidents occur.

This step is really important as misconduct can occur in various forms. Some non-apparent examples include:

  • Sending explicit emails, letters, videos, or other forms of communication
  • Uncomfortable staring or gawking
  • Unwelcome comments about someone's body
  • Offensive comments that signal gender discrimination
  • Lewd requests
  • Asking co-workers on dates despite rejection

Outlining these guidelines and stressing their compliance will ensure safety in the company.

Finally, train your managers and supervisors on how to handle sexual harassment claims. Employers need to ensure that they are equipped to conduct objective investigations into the claim, no matter whom the charge is against.

Anyone in a higher position is responsible for the well-being of their workforce and needs to address their concerns promptly.

3. Set Ground Rules for Parties and Picnics

We all know that employees tend to loosen up and become friendly during non-working events such as parties and picnics. However, these are the times when most events of violations are reported.

Such events and activities are ideal for boosting team spirit, but inappropriate behaviour during these programs can end up in lawsuits for your company.

So, you must remove any opportunity for untoward conduct by placing strict rules and policies for these events.  

Outline the repercussions if these guidelines are breached and stress discipline even during informal parties.

4. Define an Easy Reporting System

Your sexual harassment prevention policy needs an easy reporting system. This will help employees take quick action against any form of discrimination and harassment.

Educate your workers of their rights and advise them about whom they must consult when they face such conduct.

Under no circumstances must the complainant be turned away or ignored. Your organization must do everything in its ability to bring justice to the victim.

Help the employee access resources for filing a complaint and receiving legal advice.

Inform your employees about specific grievance forms and be brief about the process of reporting. This, too, should be a part of your training sessions and induction sessions for new joiners and interns.

5. Sign Forms for Office Romances

If you have couples in your organization, ask them to sign office romance forms. By doing so, you can prevent future sexual harassment claims.

If the couple undergoes a dispute or an argument, there are chances that one of them can allegedly blame the other one for sexually harassing or abusing them.

Thus, encourage consensual agreement forms. Ensure that both parties state that they are part of the relationship willingly.

These forms state that the relationship is consensual, and if the relationship ends, the parties will not do anything work-related to retaliate against the other.

Although this seems like a worst-case scenario, it is best to put in any measure possible to avoid wrongful sexual harassment charges.  

6. Respond Quickly

It is crucial to let your employees know that you are listening to their pleas. You should take every complaint seriously and investigate all accusations at your best level.

Taking immediate action to investigate and address employee grievances, inquiring with witnesses, collecting details, and analyzing the findings can help both employer and employee alike.

Your quick response puts the victim out of danger and reduces the frequency of misconduct.

Make it a point to go to the right authority to receive advice from professionals in the matter of harassment.

Conduct a detailed inquiry into the situation and prioritize the victim and their physical and mental health.

7. Prevent Retaliation

A majority of victims, whether men or women are afraid of coming forward and reporting forms of discrimination and misconduct.

Although the major reason for not coming forward is the fear of insults and judgments, it is also because of the retaliation of the accused.

The accused person may get violent and may even take revenge for reporting his or her behaviour.

This is why it is important for employers to remind all employees that retaliating against someone for filing a sexual harassment claim is wrong.

If such events occur under any circumstances, then the organization will uphold the rights of the victim and take serious action against the harasser.

Final Takeaway

Sexual harassment at the workplace is a gender-neutral issue, which means that both men and women are subject to such treatment, no matter what occupation they are a part of.

This can negatively affect their performance and their perception of your organization. Their health might also be jeopardized.

Surveys in India have shown that there has been a 14 % rise in cases of sexual harassment in the country. This means that the Indian government has failed to implement the POSH act.

Hence, the responsibility of maintaining hospitable workplaces falls on the employer. The final decision on guidelines, rules, repercussions falls on you.

So, it is necessary to maintain a strict code of conduct in this case. This includes education, implementation of rules, and harsh punishments for violations.

What's your take on sexual harassment? Leave your thoughts in the comments below and I will be happy to discuss it.

And if you're looking for a software to track attendance, monitor performance of your employees, manage employee data and process payroll take a 7 day free trial of sumHR the all in one HR Software for your SME. Book your free demo now.

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Written by
Disha Suresh
Disha is a content writer at sumHR with over a year of experience in creating website content and copy, long-form articles and user-oriented blogs.
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