Global norms on sexual harassment are necessary

Sunila Awasthi, partner, AZB & Partners  in The Economic Times , New Delhi

Sexual harassment policies at the workplace, usually relegated to the recesses of companies’ voluminous employment policies, if they exist at all, have come to the centre stage again with two recent embarrassing exits of senior CEOs of reputed multinational companies—Penguin and HP. While the two incidents occurred abroad, the occurrences should raise questions about whether Indian companies are equipped to deal with issues related with sexual harassment at the workplace.

The fact is that human resources departments in the industry have still to realise the importance of framing sexual harassment policies. In little more than a decade, the Indian workplace culture has changed dramatically as more and more women have entered, and continue to enter, the once male-dominant workplace.

In 1997 the Supreme Court of India handed down a landmark judgment which it said, in exercise of the powers under Article 226 of the Constitution of India, will be treated as the law of the land until the parliament enacts a statute to deal with sexual harassment at workplace. The Indian parliament, unfortunately, has yet to enact such a law. And unfortunately, in the absence of such a law, that Supreme Court judgment, in the case of Vishakha & Others vs State of Rajasthan, has hardly had any impact.

Any attention to issues relating to the work environment, including sexual harassment, has only been because of global best practices brought to India through the HR policies of Indian entities of large multinational companies. It is probably the first time that corporates have started explicitly declaring zero-tolerance for sexual harassment at the workplace in the company policy applicable to all employees.

Although the SC judgment of 1997 gave a wide definition of what constitutes sexual harassment at workplace, it isn’t difficult to assess what that is. An often ignored but interesting fact about such harassment is that when it occurs it does so because of the way people behave in the context of the larger societal culture. Identifying and specifying what is appropriate workplace behavior would make it easier for corporates and employees to stem inappropriate behaviour from the beginning. Indian corporates need to look at the issue from a socio-cultural perspective. A cultural shift has been the movement of an educated and skilled workforce from small towns and semi-urban areas to the metros due to rising work opportunities there.

The formal education system does not provide the requisite exposure to changes in lifestyle and behaviour that have occurred and continue to do so, due to increasing cosmopolitanism. For example, in interactions between men and women, what is ‘cool’ for someone brought up in an urban environment may be discomforting for a person not raised in such an atmosphere. Sometimes there is no recognition of the fact that comments about colleagues’ appearance and attire are inappropriate.


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