Simplifying the – Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act

In my previous blog dated October 29th, 2018, Its India’s hour of reckoning – The Desi #MeToo Movement, I spoke about the rising tide of the Desi #MeToo movement. I highlighted that how corporates are jolted up with this movement and are formulating and revisiting employee background screening policies.

In this blog, I would like to educate my readers about The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act, 2013. This is extremely important to know and implement at your workplace. This should come foremost and ought to be viewed seriously. This act prescribes a system for investigating and redressing complaints against sexual harassment of women at the workplace. It also provides safeguards against false or malicious charges.

The major provisions of the Act lay down the following responsibilities for employers, to ensure a safe working environment for women:

• Display penal consequences of sexual harassment;
• Organize workshops and sensitization programs;
• Formulate an internal policy, charter, resolution, declaration;
• Form an ‘Internal Complaints Committee’ (ICC) where the number of employees is more than ten;
• Provide necessary facilities to the committees;
• Secure attendance of witnesses/respondent;
• Monitor timely submission of committee reports;
• Assist the woman in pursuing a criminal case if she so chooses;
• Maintain confidentiality of the inquiry process. The Act lays down a penalty of Rs 5,000 on the person who has breached confidentiality;
• With sexual harassment being a crime, employers are obligated to report offenses.

Now coming to what exactly constitutes sexual harassment. A lot has been speculated about what really constitutes sexual harassment. The Act broadly defines ‘sexual harassment’ as follows:

• Implied or explicit threat of harmful treatment in employment;
• Implied or explicit threat about the present or future employment status;
• Interference with work or creating an intimidating or offensive or hostile work environment;
• Humiliating treatment likely to affect health or safety.

It includes unwelcome sexually determined behavior that compromises physical, emotional or financial safety and security of a woman worker. This includes:

• Physical contact and advances;
• A demand or request for sexual favors;
• Sexually colored remarks;
• Showing pornography; or
• Any other unwelcome physical verbal or non-verbal conduct of sexual nature.

Let’s now understand where does it apply? The definition of ‘workplace’ includes the following:

• Premises of all government and private entities that are involved in any economic activities, or work in education, entertainment, vocational services, sports facilities such as stadiums and sports complexes, health services;
• Any place visited by the employee arising out of or during the course of employment, including while in transit for work-related activities; and
• Societies, trusts, and non-governmental organizations, where people work on a voluntary basis.

Here, it must be noted that with respect to domestic workers, the Act considers even a house as a workplace.

The advent of the #MeToo movement and the resulting national debates has not only opened the Pandora’s Box but has also resulted in a lot of positive and welcome changes in the forms of initiatives that were long pending. As employers, decision makers, HR Managers you have the opportunity to positively and clearly redefine the boundaries of acceptable workplace conduct.

You are now expected to send a message to your team, that they are valued and that the organization is committed to providing a respectful workplace – not merely because the organization wishes to mitigate legal risk or prevent a PR disaster, but because it is the right thing to do. This does not limit to women! Men, women and the LGBT community need to be encompassed in this.

What can you do?

• Update the official employee handbook that outlines the procedure that will take place when sexual harassment is being experienced at work. Include an unequivocal statement that sexual harassment will not be tolerated.
• Give out a clear, simple, and easy-to-understand description of what constitutes harassing behavior or conduct, including examples of the types of behaviors that are considered harassing at the workplace.
• Implement training for all to include more focus on gender identity and sexual orientation, and emphasize gender neutrality regarding who may experience sexual harassment.
• Sensitize male employees and reinforce confidence among women to come forward and file complaints.
• Stay updated on employment law changes where their employees live or work. HRs must also utilize professional associations, legal counsel and online resources to ensure that the company is compliant and aware of existing and upcoming legislative changes related to employee rights.

It’s better to be safe than sorry, like I always say! If you haven’t institutionalized the above, please do it right away!

We at JantaKhoj are always at your service!

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