10 Nov 2016 16:10 IST

The troubling story of workplace sexual harassment

Viji Hari

Meet Viji Hari, who authored ‘BCC: Behind Closed Cubicles’, a book that narrates true experiences



~ A young girl finds a picture of hers uploaded (without her permission) on Facebook, with comments like “sexy” and “hot chick” written below it.

~ A soon-to-be-married young man is made to feel uncomfortable by another man’s unwanted attention. Things take an ugly turn when the former starts receiving anonymous emails that threaten to expose his supposed flirtatious escapades with other women.

~ A man is forced to endure a woman’s advances because she holds the key to his future hopes and dreams.

These horrifying, emotionally scarring instances are not fictional — they are real-life experiences faced by people in their workplaces.

At a recent TiECON event held in Chennai, nine people released books on various topics. Viji Hari, one of the authors, chose an important subject to write on — sexual harassment at the workplace. The book, called BCC — Behind Closed Cubicles, narrates, in the form of short stories, real instances of sexual harassment, faced by both men and women.

 

“I specialise in the topic of sexual harassment and, for the last three-and-a-half years, I’ve been interacting with clientele across India (on various topics),” says Viji, CEO and Co-founder of Kelp HR, an HR marketplace platform. “I meet a lot of people and conduct several workshops. In the process, I hear of various instances. Since I too have a corporate background, some of the stories in the book are mine as well. Of course, all these experiences were published only after taking the permission of the affected person. I have not disclosed the actual names, but have presented the crux of the story.”

Survey shows…

According to a survey done by Kelp HR , of the 291 people in the workforce who were interviewed, as many as 22 per cent were being harassed in the workplace! “This number is a conservative estimate and, in reality, should be higher because, when we asked people who we knew were victims to take the survey anonymously, some didn’t want to take it at all — such is the taboo!” she says.

Of the 22 per cent, 5 per cent are men, and 3 per cent faced same-sex harassment. “We also saw that of the 22 per cent who admitted to being harassed, only 55 per cent were comfortable enough to go ahead and report the incident. Others either resigned from their jobs and moved away or merely stayed mum, hoping the nightmare would somehow disappear.”

But, of course, this never works.

Go Pink

Pink, the hard-hitting movie by Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury that left many people, especially women, shaken and stirred, was a much-needed film that opened up dialogues on the importance of consent, and reinforced the idea that “No means no”. And that is what people must do, Viji says, when they are faced with such a situation. “Analysis has shown that 60 per cent of the time, saying “stop” or “no” directly to the person, actually helps,” shared the author.

Awareness workshops

Asked what her most interesting observation was when she conducted awareness workshops at corporates, she said it was the fact that, “People are not very clear on what constitutes sexual harassment. They think certain behaviours are okay. For instance, I’ve received questions like, “What’s wrong with discussing other people’s sex lives?” Or “What’s wrong with discussing rumours?” People come from different and diverse backgrounds; cultures are different, so perception is very important.”

The book also brings to fore the fact that sexual harassment needn’t always be outrageous and in-your-face. “Today, WhatsApp is an app that almost everybody uses. So colleagues might think it is okay to forward a few dirty jokes. People work late nights and, when something comes up on their phones, they think it’s ok to forward it, as it is, without considering how the team might take it,” Viji explains.

She says there have also been a lot of cases in Bangalore BPOs, where young women have stepped out of their homes for the first time to work at a white-collared job. For them, seeing party life or people hugging each other freely comes as something of a shock. “This leads to them feeling very isolated and they may even think of quitting their jobs! So the idea behind creating awareness is to build a work environment that’s suitable for everyone.”

What companies must do

The Prevention of Sexual Harassment Act came into being in December 2013, and requires companies to act on two fronts — prevention and redressal. The former requires firms to have policies in place and create awareness on what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. The latter requires them to have a grievance cell, which handles complaints.

“While some corporates are serious about increasing awareness at workspaces, others look at it as a mere compliance issue — a check box that has to be ticked off. They think ‘I’ve created the policy, I’ve done one round of awareness, and I’m done. The box has been ticked’,” said the author. However, there are others who believe in this cause and are sincerely committed to it.

The key point for companies to remember is that people must be given a safe space where they voice their concerns. They should keep an open culture and ensure that confidentiality is maintained.

However, the study conducted points to a dismal trend — of the 55 per cent who went ahead and reported the harassment, no action was taken in 59 per cent of the cases! “Is it any wonder, then, that people don’t come forward to register complaints? The Act requires a complaint to be closed within 90 days. But when an important person or a senior manager is involved, the company is hesitant to deal with it or talk about it.”

The whole system has to change, she says. The Act is fairly new, so people are just trying to scale up and be compliant. Slowly, it will catch up with more awareness. And this is what Viji is aiming for with her book.