‘My blood is boiling!’ Aarti looked like she was ready to kill someone. It was an expression that was not familiar on her face.
‘I really wish Dhiren would stop staring at me. It is so annoying!’ She was referring to a colleague, who though was not part of her team, worked in the same organisation. She shared her work space with him. ‘In spite of telling him, he continues to watch me all the time!’
I made an unhelpful but the most obvious suggestion that came to mind. ‘Tell him again. More assertively this time.’
She gave me an exasperated look. ‘Well, he denied that he stares. Also it is so awkward to keep telling someone that they have to stop staring! But I feel very self-conscious when he is around, especially when I am dressed in skirts.’
‘You know, if he is making you so uncomfortable, you would be within your rights to raise a complaint of sexual harassment against him. Especially since you have told him to stop.’
‘Really? One can raise a complaint for staring?’
I smiled. ‘Yes. The staring is obviously very unwelcome, so, yes, you are within your rights to raise a complaint. If you don’t want to raise a formal complaint, you can probably unofficially speak to one of the POSH committee members in your organisation, to understand more about your rights and the various options that are available to you.’
‘Never would I do that!’, Aarti replied vehemently. Seeing my surprised look she said, ‘If you knew the committee members in my organisation, you would never suggest this. I don’t think any of them has the maturity of dealing with this. I can just see them ridiculing it.’
This conversation with Aarti kept playing in my mind and gave me an interesting insight: While organisations have put in place a POSH committee in place, as per the mandate of the Prevention of Sexual Harassment Act, many of them seem to have done this on paper and not in spirit.
The Act has been put in place to provide protection against sexual harassment at the workplace and the POSH committee is to be the facilitator of this process. However, if employees of an organisation share views similar to that of Aarti and in case the committee members are not perceived to be someone who will help resolve issues, employees will not approach them. The very purpose of forming the committee will then be lost. In such an environment, only very serious victimisation cases would be brought to light. The milder and the simpler ones will remain unnoticed and women will continue to suffer in silence the likes of Dhiren and his stares!
As per the mandate, organisations are conducting training on investigative skills for their committee members, to equip them with the ability and wherewithal to handle complains and, of course to bring the cases to a conclusion. However, not enough impetuous is being given to the manner in which the investigations are carried out. The committee plays an important role in creating the right environment and a harassment free culture. Some characteristics that are important while appointing a committee member are given below.
Characteristics of a good committee member:
• Ability to listen with an open mind and the ability to resolve informal complaints.
• The person has to be approachable and someone who will be able to put the employee at ease while discussing or recounting an uncomfortable situation or experience.
• When the harassment is not of a serious nature, the committee member should be able to provide advice to the employee on the various options that are available to her or him.
• Credibility of the team in charge of conducting investigations is extremely important. They need to be someone who will not only remain neutral but are also be perceived to be people who will be fair in their investigations and treatment.
• They should be able to provide necessary support to all parties involved.
• They need to ensure that the dignity of the complainant and the respondent remains intact, especially during the investigation process.
• The committee members should be careful to not admonish the respondent early on in the case. Also, they should not reprimand the complainant for taking action at a late stage or for not being assertive enough against the harasser. In order for this to happen, the committee members should have an open mind.
• Be high on Emotional Intelligence and have high levels of empathy. Emotions on both sides may be running high, making it important for committee members to be sensitive while handling the case.
Relevance of counselling skills for the committee members:
Training in counselling skills will be helpful to enable the committee members to build on the above mentioned characteristics. Care, however, will have to be taken that the committee does not take the role of a counselor but only learns the skills of a counselor: maintaining distance from the parties involved in order to make a fair and reasonable judgement of the situation, remain objective through the process, active listening and responding with empathy.
The POSH Act will be effective only when organisations implement it in spirit as well on letter! Else it will remain just an Act with minimal impact on the workplace environment.
Stay connected for more articles from the POSH series.