Sexual Harassment at Workplace

Consent– the permission or agreement to engage in any kind of activity along with the liberty to say yes or no at any point of time. Consent plays a very significant role in immensely important issues like sexual harassment. Any form of unwelcome, inappropriate sexual behaviour that is offensive or humiliating whether physical, verbal or written is termed as sexual harassment.

Largely, it has been assumed that sexual harassment happens only to women. But according to a survey conducted by the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE), 79% of the victims were women and 21% were men. This issue isn’t restricted to any gender, community, type of workplace or any other basis. It is prevalent everywhere and needs to be considered for the safety of every individual going out of their homes to work.
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):

  1. Physical contact and advances;
  2. A demand or request for sexual favours;
  3. Sexually coloured remarks;
  4. Showing pornography and
  5. Any other unwelcome physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of sexual nature.

Sexual harassment at workplace involves employer, employee, supervisor, colleagues, customers or anyone else connected with attending a workplace. Volunteers, interns, members of industrial organizations, qualifying bodies, all are covered by law. In most cases, individuals do not report the cases of sexual harassment because of fear of retaliation by harasser or losing job and professional status or reputation. Ensuring a safe workplace would not only increase the participation of the population in the work force but also provide them with a sense of dignity and power towards themselves, assuring them that they are protected by the law. Another important issue is the acknowledgement of the harassment since many victims think that it is something that can be resolved personally without understanding the magnitude of the issue thus only giving rise to this offence.

Threatening a person about the destruction of their career if the sexual advances aren’t returned or taking a jib at their image in the office are some common scenarios faced by individuals.

According to section 354A, sexual harassment is unwelcome physical contact and advances, including unwanted and explicit sexual overtures, a demand or request for sexual favours, showing someone sexual images (pornography) without their consent, and making unwelcome sexual remarks. The punishment is up to three years in prison and a fine.

An extremely important law in India regarding the issue is Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013. It defines sexual harassment at workplace, creates a mechanism for redressal of complaints. The Act also covers concepts of ‘quid pro quo harassment’ and ‘hostile work environment’ as forms of sexual harassment if it occurs relating to an act or behaviour of sexual harassment. The Act goes much further to include organisations, department, office, branch unit etc. in the public and private sector, organized and unorganized, hospitals, nursing homes, educational institutions, sports institutes, stadiums, sports complex and any place visited by the employee during the course of employment including the transportation. Even non-traditional workplaces which involve tele-commuting are covered under this law. Also, every employer is required to constitute an Internal Complaints Committee at each office or branch with 10 or more employees.

The first step while dealing with sexual harassment at work includes saying no– making the harasser aware that what they’re doing is wrong and unwelcome. The second and most important step is reporting the harassment to the employer or anyone else who has the power to stop it. A written form of communication is always more preferable to keep a proof of all the proceedings if anyone decides to deny doing or saying anything in the future. Writing down everything that happened in detail is important so that nothing is missed out, details aren’t bantered with. Keeping a record of your work records/performances and talking to others to find other people who might’ve faced something similar.

Every company has some guidelines and procedures including committee required under law, and company setups can be used for escalating sexual harassment complaints. Other tools like mediation are also offered by some companies that offer a resolution. Statistics show that 80% of mediations lead to resolution.

Sexual harassment need not necessarily occur only between opposite sexes, or only to women. It also does not always happen that an employee is harassed by the employer or the co-worker. The reverse case can also happen and there are proper laws for that.

It can disrupt the working environment, cause the withdrawal of workers from an organization, traumatize them to a large extent. No reason can make sexual harassment acceptable, especially in any area of work. It should be fought back and stopped at as early stage as possible. Most importantly, apart from personal agony to sufferers, sexual harassment hampers motivation, focus and ability to concentrate on work and deliver results, the basic aim or any employee – employer relationship and consequently reduces efficiency of organisation.

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