Workplace Harassment is an area that is gaining visibility due to the impact it has on overall organizational culture as well as employee well-being. It is the single most important reason for work-related stress.
Many people use workplace harassment and sexual harassment interchangeably, or believe it to be the most harmful. However, they are not the same. Sexual harassment is a subset, or one of the types, of workplace harassment. Also, bullying, belittling or shaming, aggression, discrimination, and abuse at the workplace also qualifies as harassment and is equally harmful.
At a workplace, harassment is prohibited on the following grounds of discrimination – race, colour, religion, national origin, ancestry, place of origin, age, physical disability, mental disability, marital status, and/or sexual orientation.
As per the definition shared by the Supreme Court, ‘Sexual Harassment’ includes unwelcome sexually tinted behaviour, whether directly or by implication, such as physical contact and advances, demands for sexual favours, sexually coloured remarks, showing pornography, or any other unwelcome physical, and verbal or non-verbal conduct of a sexual nature.
Here are some common real-life comments made at Indian workplaces, including MNCs:
- “You are so tall, are you sure you need those heels?”
- “Walk slowly, I can feel the ground shaking when you are around.” (Comments received by a fat person.)
- “Rani can afford to buy that expensive car as her income is her pocket money, whereas I am the sole breadwinner, and that is why I deserve the promotion more than her.”
- “Hey Pakistani, how are you doing today?” (Boss addressing an Indian Muslim junior team member.)
- “Let’s look at promoting that Reddy guy first, that Tamil guy can wait.” (Preferential treatment based on origin or community.)
- “We men can talk about cup-sizes, so why can’t you women talk about car brands?”
So how do you tackle it if you are facing harassment at work?
Classify – sexual harassment or workplace-related harassment?
Understanding the nature of the harassment and classifying it accordingly is the first step. Be aware of the behaviours that fall under each type of harassment since reporting and then implications are aligned to that. Carry out your own research on key aspects of sexual harassment before you decide to proceed.
Speak up and say “no”
Taking a stand and being able to demonstrate respect for oneself is the next step. You need to be firm and frank in categorically speaking up to discourage such behaviour. Remaining silent and not trying to put a stop to it immediately can send mixed signals to the harasser.
Confront the harasser and explain how you felt
Telling the harasser exactly how humiliating or offending such instances of harassment are is a good idea. Explaining how it made you feel and the impact of their behaviour is important. Document the details of the incident and the need to stop the behaviour on email to the harasser. This documentation seems to be the most effective way to stop the behaviour as there is clear proof of having warned this person.
Document the incident, note down witnesses, and gather evidence
To report any case or incident, getting as many facts ready as possible is important. These are required to verify and authenticate your complaint as well as to ensure that the harasser knows the type of behaviour that has caused the complaint to take place. There might be witnesses who were present during the incident. If it was harassment via an online medium, there are snapshots that can be shared. Time and place of the incident are also critical to the complaint.
Take it to the HR or to the POSH committee or to the management
Once you have carried out all the above steps, and if the issue still persists, then take your complaint to your internal sexual harassment committee/HR/Management and share it. They may have initial queries for you, so remember to answer those cohesively and truthfully. You should also be aware of the next course of action from their end and your role in the coming days as the enquiry progresses. Irrespective of any concerns you may have about how it will be perceived or handled, reporting harassment is absolutely critical, for your own well-being as well as for that of others who might have or might suffer the same.
If the last step fails and the organization does not take action to address workplace harassment incidents, it should realize that employees in current times are self-motivated and empowered. They could take the route of their choice to make their voices heard. It could be similar to the Nike way, where the women did a secret survey and shared the report with the CEO, or they may follow Uber’s Susan Fowler’s footsteps of taking it to the media. These steps could disrupt the way the organization operates and its image in the corporate world and result in big changes at the top management level too.