Worthy challenges

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Is it still one step forward, two steps back for India?

While this is arguably the case for aspects of the economic and financial fabric of the country, progress has been seen with regard to moving societal values and norms forward. A recent example is the landmark ruling of the Supreme Court decriminalizing gay sex. But what of the brave voices raised against sexual harassment? Those powering the #MeToo movement in India have made waves speaking out about their experiences and openly naming alleged harassers. In the process, they have inspired others and started a much-needed conversation.

Leader IBLJ 1811But India, as the writer Arundhati Roy says, lives in “several centuries simultaneously”. As such, the #MeToo movement rages alongside instances of female infanticide, foeticide and more. This is the backdrop against which laws designed to counter sexual harassment in the workplace are being implemented. The task at hand is substantial, but as detailed in this issue’s Cover story (A call to arms), companies are receiving more complaints about sexual harassment thanks in part to the empowering effects of #MeToo. However, dealing with the complaints has proved to be a challenge.

Amitabh Lal Das, director and head of legal, compliance, regulatory and corporate governance at Max Life Insurance Company says it has been “a lot of work in terms of continuous training, sensitization, consequence management and reinforcement of values and practices that have zero tolerance for any harassment at the workplace.” Yes, efforts need to continue on a war footing but will respect for women in the workplace be too much to ask in India?

Writing in this month’s Vantage point, Harshita Thammaiah, general counsel at Xiaomi Technology India, says a culture of having zero tolerance for sexual harassment must “trickle down to each and every corner of the organization”.

Therein lies a challenge as people within a company – as she points out – are from different social, economic and cultural backgrounds, and would perceive and react to the same situation differently. Be that as it may, she is of the opinion that anti-sexual harassment norms must be practised not as a matter of compliance but with an intent to create a safe and equitable culture that contributes to the overall growth of an organization.

In Weighed down, we turn the spotlight on the need for companies to go beyond what is legally required of them under the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 (POSH Act) to create a safe and secure working environment for women.

This can be a challenge but one that must be undertaken. A case in point is gender equality and sensitization workshops that are often prescribed to counsel employees. Both will require people to battle their deep-rooted cultural and social stereotypes, and when done effectively will be a vital step towards a solution. In addition, action to address gender inequality needs to start with a company’s leadership by recognizing
the problem.

This month’s What’s the deal (Blowing the whistle) analyses how legal and human resources departments should respond when a sexual harassment complaint is made. As first responders in such a situation, human resources managers have a key role but need to work in conjunction with the legal department. As they go about their task they need to maintain confidentiality, which as Sanjit Kaur Batra, legal head (South Asia) at DuPont, says is critical in order to ensure that there is no retaliation against the complainant. Unlike other misconduct situations, the human resources manager will be unable to fire or transfer the accused employee to another office. All such decisions rest with the company’s internal complaints committee, which is required to be set up in accordance with the law, and which is expected to handle the matter tactfully and empathically.

The penalty for companies that do not comply with the POSH Act ranges from a fine of ₹50,000 (US$700) to cancellation of company licenses or registration for subsequent offences. More important would be the reputational damage that the company would most definitely suffer.

This month’s Intelligence report, reveals India Business Law Journal’s 2018 Rising Stars. In it, we honour 50 law firms that we believe are on the ascent. This is the second year that we have researched this often-overlooked universe of firms and our list of Rising Stars is ample evidence that the entrepreneurial spirit and desire for excellence continue to flourish.

We also find that gender may be becoming less relevant in India’s legal market. Over a fifth of the Rising Stars are headed by women and conversations with a few of them suggest that they see little by way of challenges on account of being women in what used to be a male-dominated world. The sky appears to be the limit for both, them and the rest of the firms we feature in this report. They deserve to be on the radar of every discerning client.