Over the last few days, the #MeToo campaign has gathered steam in India. Women from various industries, different age groups and diverse backgrounds have openly spoken about instances of sexual harassment, and in many cases have uncovered the masks of those who allegedly abused their positions of power. Given the current scenario, it becomes important for companies to sensitise their employees on a regular basis to prevent such cases.
The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, or the POSH Act, was implemented several years after the Supreme Court issued guidelines regarding sexual harassment against women at the workplace. Under the POSH Act, every Indian company is required to set up an Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) to exclusively hear such cases and conduct inquiries where a prima facie case is established. Recently, the Companies (Accounts) Amendment Rules, 2018, was introduced, requiring the board of every company to include a statement in its Annual Director’s Report confirming that it has complied with the provisions relating to the Complaints Committee under the POSH Act.
With the advent of social media, corporates in India have come under the scanner, with the public constantly evaluating the way such issues have to be handled. For this, there are some pre-emptive steps that companies can undertake to ensure a safe and healthy working environment, such as the POSH policy, which is to be widely disseminated to all employees of the company and be easily accessible. Companies can also display a notice at a conspicuous place, highlighting the penal consequences of sexual harassment.
Another approach is ‘zero tolerance’. Through this, the companies can, at every opportunity, communicate their zero-tolerance policy towards sexual harassment to employees and those employees could potentially face disciplinary proceedings for contravention. Similarly, female employees can also be warned that if a complaint made is found to be false or malicious, they could also be subject to appropriate disciplinary action. It is important to note that the buck does not, need not and should not stop at creating and disseminating policies. As part of effective implementation of the POSH policy and zero-tolerance approach, companies should create awareness programmes, whereby companies can organise workshops and seminars at regular intervals for sensitising employees to the provisions of the Act and the policy. While training and sensitising the employees is important, in order for anti-sexual harassment measures to have complete effect, the companies must, on a regular basis, ensure the effectiveness of their ICC. In this regard, the companies should conduct regular capacity-building and skill-building programmes for members of the ICC. This will assist the members with objectively analysing the complaint and completing the inquiry process in a time-bound manner.
Also, in case of an unusual exit by a female employee, such corporate could look at openly discussing and understanding, during the exit interview, whether instances of harassment or abuse occurred, leading to exit. In the present day and age, retaining talent is one of the most important consideration for a company. Any drain in the talent pool on the grounds of sexual harassment can severely dent a company’s reputation and have a negative impact on its business and profitability.
The #MeToo buzz that has been generated over the last few days on social media has helped in increasing awareness and recognising the importance of a safe and compliant work environment. While companies should try to create a risk-free work environment for employees to come forward and report any instances of sexual harassment, they also need to ensure that such enquiries are dealt with in a fair and just manner.
This article was first published in Financial Express.