Harassment comes in many forms, but some of it may be down to cultural and social differences.

Most commentators welcomed the introduction of India’s Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act (POSH) in 2013, and many have lauded the statute’s framework of viewing incidents from the victim’s perspective, rather than focusing purely on the intent of the alleged sexual assault.

However, India’s vast cultural and geographical diversity means that what is deemed acceptable workplace conduct in one office or city could be seen as wholly inappropriate in another. This is one reason why exercises in awareness, sensitization and training, both within an organization and outside it, are so crucial to iron out misunderstandings that may not necessarily fall under the category of harassment.

Swarnima, a partner at Trilegal, frequently conducts training sessions across organizations and sectors, using examples relevant to each business. “Constantly asking someone out on a date is a type of harassment that I come across often,” she says, especially at companies with young employees.

However, she insists that ICC members and senior leaders must always consider both sides of a story. “In one case, a male employee asked out his female co-worker several times suggesting a film, a coffee date and other options. But when we investigated the matter, we discovered that the female employee said she was busy or did not enjoy the activity he had proposed, rather than directly saying ‘no’. In that case, the man was not at fault; he simply hadn’t realized she was not interested and this was down to unclear communication.”

Each organization has a unique set of challenges, says Swarnima. The startup culture, for example, relies on employees being comfortable with each other, sitting anywhere they like, dressing and speaking casually. These new norms can also throw up problems of workplace misconduct.

These differences are also exacerbated in a diverse workforce, where people from smaller villages and towns or more conservative cultures begin to integrate in large metropolitan cities. Swarnima illustrates this with a case of a young woman from Chennai who had recently moved to Mumbai. Her team went out to a restaurant for a social event, where she sat quietly while they danced and drank alcohol. Her manager noticed her in the corner and invited her to join everyone, but she declined. In an effort to make her feel a part of the team, he later asked her to join them again, holding her hand this time.

Swarnima says the female employee burst into tears as she was mortified by this behaviour, which to others may not have construed as harassment at all. “We conduct training to help people respect and understand the differences between us,” she says. “It’s about making people as akin to us as possible, making them comfortable and recognizing that people are unique and diverse.”

Sometimes, the issue has nothing to do with geographical differences. Alpana Srivastava, assistant general counsel at Jones Lang LaSalle, narrates one peculiar case where a male employee, while attempting to shake hands with his female counterpart, lost his balance and jerked forward. He admitted that it happened and apologized.

However, the female employee accused the man of pulling her towards him and said she felt uncomfortable that an element of sexual harassment had occurred, even if it was not intended. In such harmless cases, says Srivastava, “it is the duty of the ICC to strike a balance and make sure everyone is on the same page”.

While many headline-making stories of the #MeToo movement have highlighted serious acts of harassment against women, observers worry that some women may abuse the law to raise fabricated or frivolous claims in an attempt to browbeat their male co-workers, or further their own career gains.

To stop such misuse of the law and protect an employer’s interests, POSH stipulates that an employer may take action against a complainant if she is found to have lodged a false or malicious complaint.

“If I had to summarize my message,” says Srivastava, “it would be to women. The law is in our favour, and it is our responsibility not to misuse it.”

Read more:

A call to arms – Lawyers and in-house counsel discuss how companies can stamp out sexual harassment and empower victims to come forward and file an official complaint in line with the POSH Act

How to file a complaint – A brief introduction to submitting sexual harassment complaints