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Sex and the workplace

Soon, any act with even remote sexual connotations could land a man in soup, writes V Sandhu & R Punoose.
None | By Veenu Sandhu & Rukhmini Punoose, New Delhi, Mumbai
PUBLISHED ON JUL 31, 2006 11:11 AM IST

Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away, there existed a concept called ‘chivalry’. But try dropping that word in the modern day workplace where men and women are supposed to share a healthy professional relationship. And watch the eyebrows shoot up. Agreed, chivalry doesn’t really have much of a place, given the present-day work environment (even the feminists frown upon it). But neither does the other extreme — the assumption that working women are easy prey and “perks that come with work”, in the words of Minister of State for Women and Child Development Renuka Choudhury.

Sexual harassment, activists have been crying, exists in BPOs, in schools and colleges, in Bollywood, in the corporate sector, in the uniformed forces, and just about everywhere, in one form or another. Which is why the National Commission for Women had drafted ‘The Sexual Harassment of Women at the Workplace (Prevention and Redressal) Bill, 2004’ and submitted it to the Department of Women and Child Development.

The Bill is slated to come up in this session of Parliament. If passed, it promises to utterly redefine the work environment. Any act with even remote sexual connotations — an SMS joke, a forwarded email,  or a popup — could land a man in soup if a woman he shares a working relationship with perceives it as an intentional act aimed at harassing her. Predictably, it has thrown up several questions.

Do we need this?

This Bill was needed a 100 years ago, says KK Ramkumar, head of HR, ICICI. “It’s important to let people know the management is watching. Why should people get away with making sexual jokes or innuendoes if these infringe on someone’s personal space?” Ramkumar asks. A serving Colonel, however, wants to know the extent to which the Bill goes. “In the army, we address everybody as ‘dear’. I address my wife, my daughter and even my colleagues as ‘dear’. What will I do if a lady officer misunderstands that? It will also kill the joy of conversation,” he says.

Mahesh Ramanathan, COO of Percept Picture Company, is not worried. He feels the Bill is more suited to the white collared set-up than Bollywood. “While there might be an odd Rakhi Sawant case, in the production and behind-the-camera departments involved in filmmaking, we haven’t had any case of sexual harassment,” Ramanathan says. “Also, being a creative industry, the line of morality here keeps getting redrawn, depending on personal sensibilities.”

Somewhat cynical, Gavin Pacheco, HR manager of a BPO company in Gurgaon, isn’t sure if the same rules will apply at different levels of hierarchy. “If a low rung agent is viewing porn in office and women colleagues sitting close by file a sexual harassment case, he will probably lose his job. But if the man at the top is doing so, will he be given the same punishment?” Pacheco asks. He also feels the term ‘untoward sexual advances’ can be interpreted differently by different people.  “You need to clearly define what’s acceptable and what’s not.”

Are we ready?

In 1997, the Supreme Court directed organisations to set up ‘Sexual Harassment Complaints Committee’ at the workplace. A project coordinator at Gurgaon-based NGO, Sakshi, which conducts awareness building programmes on the issue, says most corporate companies are not even willing to accept that sexual harassment exists. “Well, we have a policy called the Gender Neutral Policy, which deals with both men and women. It also addresses sexual harassment,” says Ramkumar, adding, “We get about 10 to 12 complaints a year.”

Army PRO Col SK Sakhiya says they have Army Act 16 and the Defence Services Regulation which deal with conduct. “Besides, any complaint can be taken up with the commanding officer, the ‘old man’ of the regiment. Or with the successive levels in the hierarchy.” A lady officer however says the silent sufferers don’t feel comfortable going to male bosses.

Meanwhile, Aditya Jain, chief human resources officer of Tata Tele Services, says: “We already have two kinds of committees: the Redressal Committee Internal and the Redressal Committee External that probe complaints and recommend action. Also, the male-female ratio is generally equal in BOPs, adds Raman Roy, former president and chief executive officer of Wipro BPO Solutions. “Most bigger companies already have channels through which cases of sexual harassment are dealt with objectively.”

Why penalise boss?

“It’s foolish to pull up the CEO rather than the perpetrator, unless he has failed to take action against the perpetrator,” says Ramkumar. Hari T, senior vice-president, Global Human Resources, Satyam Computer Services, agrees:  “In a company like Satyam, with a 31,000 strong workforce, the CEO might not even know the person. Perhaps the onus should be on the regional head of human resources.” Also, organisations will have to invest time to educate the workforce, adds Hari T.  Ronnie Screwvala, CEO of UTV, thinks this clause makes the management accountable to take immediate steps.

What about blackmail?

The Bill has also thrown up apprehension that it might become an easy blackmail tool. But not all agree. “Every law can be misused, but in the end, it depends on the industry,” says Anju Kurien, HR head of Grey Global Group. There is, however, one grouse: that the Bill is one-sided. “What if an SMS from a woman colleague hurts my sensibilities? Whom do I complaint to?” asks a BPO employee.

(Inputs from Rachel Lopez, Shevlin Sebastian, Nivriti Butalia and Piyush Roy)

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