Harshitha Thammaiah, general counsel at Xiaomi Technology India

A zero-tolerance culture and a strong internal complaints committee are key to addressing sexual harassment, writes Harshitha Thammaiah

The wave of #MeToo movement that swept the world, hit India too in the last few months. The movement, a revelation to many on the prevalence of sexual harassment, has emboldened women to come out and talk about their personal experiences.

The recent walkouts staged by Google employees over claims of sexual harassment and gender inequality has prompted companies to reconsider policies and put in place better mechanisms to protect employees from sexual harassment.

In India, while some companies practise zero tolerance towards sexual harassment, others are yet to fully implement the legal framework under the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 (POSH Act).

The #MeToo movement has also triggered an urgency to be POSH compliant and to do so more earnestly, although the POSH Act cannot itself address all past sexual harassment incidents. For instance, an incident that occurred more than half a year ago may not be possible under the POSH Act because of the six-month time limit in it. Another related limitation is the need to present evidence to make a cogent case against the accused.

In order to achieve a safe and harassment-free work environment for employees, it is important for organizations to look beyond the realms of law. As a starting point, the culture of having zero tolerance for sexual harassment must trickle down to each and every corner of the organization. In a country like India, people from different social, economic and cultural backgrounds perceive and react to the same situation differently. Therefore, it is important to train and sensitize employees on the gender dynamics, on what constitutes harassment and on being conscious of one’s boundaries at the workplace. Lately, a few companies are taking proactive measures in organizing training on the POSH Act and overall gender sensitization issues. Some organizations are also creating support structures and mentoring employees to speak up instead of silently suffering.

One institution that plays a vital role in the prevention and resolution of sexual harassment in the workplace is the internal complaints committee (ICC), which is mandated to be set up under the POSH Act. While training employees, it is important to create awareness of the ICC and to explain the role and responsibilities of this committee. In many instances, aggrieved employees first approach either the human resources (HR) department or their immediate reporting manager instead of the ICC, but the former may not be completely equipped to deal with such incidents in the manner required under the POSH Act.

Another challenge lies in the constitution of the ICC itself. Small and medium-sized organizations may not have enough women employees who can be part of the ICC. Big organizations may grapple with the challenge of constituting a well-equipped ICC at all their offices across the country.

Further, since the POSH Act mandates the presence of an external ICC member, companies face challenges in finding the right person with the required expertise in handling such matters. More often than not, a respected external ICC member may be on many such committees and may not be able to devote sufficient time. Therefore, in choosing the external member, a detailed assessment of credentials, expertise, and industry knowledge becomes critical.

Training and equipping the ICC with skills in handling sexual harassment cannot be overemphasized given that it has been vested with immense power and responsibility. Not all the members can grasp the legal and procedural nuances of handling sexual harassment matters. Therefore, it is important to conduct frequent training to make them aware of their legal responsibilities. Further, training the ICC members to be empathetic, and to act as neutral, independent and fair-minded professionals is critical. The members of the ICC must be trained not to indulge in victim shaming or character assassination of the accused.

Organizations must also give due consideration to the implementation of orders issued by the ICC. Orders, which range from warning letters to termination, are often enforced and implemented by HR departments that must be trained to enforce them. In some instances, there may be some reluctance among HR professionals in effectively implementing the verdict, especially if a senior member of the organization is involved, or due to fears of reputational harm to the company. This is where training and sensitization can help in ensuring that harassers are held accountable.

Anti-sexual harassment norms must be practised not as a matter of legal compliance but with an intent to create a safe and equitable culture that contributes to the overall growth of an organization.

Harshitha Thammaiah is general counsel at Xiaomi Technology India