Sexual harassment at the workplace is more common than we think, or rather, than we like to admit. I think it’s safe to say that a sizeable percentage of working women have experienced instances of sexual harassment during their careers. The advances could come from any quarter (often from people in positing of power), at any stage in their careers. Today, I can admit to the fact that I have hesitated to report in when it happened in the early years of my career – not because I felt that it would impact my growth in the company, but because I didn’t really know where or how to report it.
As I read the news about the SEBI Guidelines mandating that sexual harassment complaints data should be declared by all companies going forward I wondered how much of an impact this would make. It is definitely a positive move and one in the right direction.
What I am skeptical about is the fact that it might not be a true reflection of what is happening in organizations. The issue does not lie with companies sharing the data in a public forum. The issue lies with women being confident as well as comfortable, in reporting harassment related experiences. Large organizations such as Wipro, TCS, Mahindra & Mahindra and so on, have reported the data from the past year. They have provided updates on the current status of the complaints. That’s a huge positive, considering how hesitant companies usually are, about any information that reflects on their brand.
But take a hard look at this:
Do we know what percentage of cases went unreported?
Does the company share what specific kind of action was taken against the harasser? (apart from generic statements like – “complaints were resolved by conciliation” or with “the required disciplinary action.”
Are we sure to see program, policy or practice changes within organizations as a result? Perhaps, but not certain.
Do we have a mechanism to track that the reported data is correct?
Do we have small-scale organizations, start-ups, unlisted companies also reporting this as yet?
Do we have data-sharing provisions, for harassment of temporary employees , freelancers covered under this?
Do we have a process to gauge when it happens at the interview level itself?
Is there a robust process to substantiate the complaints and track that the harasser does not repeat the same in another organization?
The answers to most of the above questions are in the negative.
A Sexual Harassment policy and Internal Complaints Committee are as far as organizations tend to go. The need, however, is to identify trends and work at the base or root cause of such issues. Merely stating that there is a zero-tolerance anti-harassment policy will not suffice. Spending time and effort in assessing what kind of gender bias, underlying perceptions or discriminatory attitude are causing this to happen, is the challenge.
The reported numbers look disturbing, and it also seems to indicate that IT companies have a higher percentage of such cases as compared to other industries. But, this is partial data. And partial data does enable decision making. The validity of the data applies only when it is available in entirety. Therefore, while SEBI Guidelines for the listed companies is a step in the right direction, let us be aware that the numbers are not always what they seem like or are reported to be. There is much more below the surface than meets the eye. And this is what needs to be addressed.
By Simran Oberoi
Simran Oberoi is an independent HR Consultant in Bangalore, with HR Advisory, Knowledge Development and Research expertise of over 13 years, in Rewards & Compensation, Diversity & Inclusion, Talent Development, HR & Social Media. She has worked with consulting firms like Hay Group, Aon Hewitt and PricewaterhouseCoopers in the past, in India as well as Asia-Pacific leadership roles. Simran is also a keen baker – you can find her recipes at https://ovenderfulhealthybaking.wordpress.com/