Article (March-2020)


The dirty picture of workplace

Dr. Saagarika Ghoshal

Designation : -   Country Manager, Top Employer Institute, HR Leader and author, Ex-Board Member and Director HR

Organization : -  METRO Cash and Carry, Mumbai


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External Circumstances can only cause you physical pain. Suffering is created in your mind. -Sadh guru

It is paradoxical that I have been on various committees in my long drawn professional career and what I understand from statistics is that almost every woman has gone through some sort of harassment at the workplace once in her lifetime. It took me a long time to talk about this subject not because I feared anything but just that feeling of awkwardness, it really seemed like a double-edged sword. The Me too movement on Facebook creates a shift on how victims come forward and It equally got me and many more thinking. Those unwilling to stay silent any longer illustrate what's happening with this avalanche of disclosures is more than just a show of strength. To be honest it really sent shockwaves to many to see the Me Too movement! Some called it an overreaction? But isn't it time for something that is long overdue because most women and some men have endured and secretly suppressed their hurt and fear for decades? And all it takes is for any individual to realise that it can always happen again and cause pain if you are not super vigilant, and being a bit relaxed at the work place. Probably even after years of experience in the Corporate World, I didn't know how to deal with this issue in a non-judgmental manner. Breezing through my career journey as an HR leader, I have had various mixed bag experiences - some good and some bad dealing with sexual harassment at the workplace. Sometime, a genuine case and sometime, just to settle the score with the man/woman. This dirty picture of the workplace is called sexual harassment which probably no one wants to see at the workplace. Although, it certainly deserves its long overdue attention, it has mostly been treated like "water cooler" talk - The topic is hugely an under reported epidemic. Ironically the society we live in would rather like to stand for dignity of the queen who has long gone down in history but they hide behind the door when it comes to saving the dignity of fellow women colleagues at their workplaces. Despite significant progress and national attention being drawn on the issue of sexual harassment at the workplace, there are situations where the accused are the individuals on whom the success of the business depends. Too many companies sweep allegations of unparliamentary behaviour and actions under the carpet, sometimes even pay out substantial sums of money to accusers in exchange for their silence. I would like to believe that most employers now take allegations of sexual and ethnic harassment seriously and show no tolerance when presented with credible cases.

What should you do as an empowered HR person :

In an ideal world, anyone who experiences harassment at work would head directly to the human resource department. But the reality is sometimes far-fetched. "HR is not your friend. HR will not help you."

I have heard it so many times. I have always felt that the inability stems firstly, from where the HR sits on the organization chart, not denying the fundamental conflict when the HR doesn't have a place on the board and is accountable to even finance function. Secondly, from the skills and competence of the HR person and lastly, gender also plays a role in these power dynamics- HR managers and -God forbid- if they are women, means alarms over harassment might be met with skepticism by the male-dominated leadership. It's an underlying aspect of what happens when you're bringing complaints and issues against the majority. But all said and done, one cannot deny that HR is at the heart of all the workplace issues. Ideally HR should strive to handle any investigation about harassment complaints in the workplace in the most sensitive and professional manner. Ensuring the enforcement of the consequences when it is necessary, you are certainly loved and hated for how you deal with the workplace issue. Being an HR person is the toughest when you are handling such a situation and especially when there are clearly no defined rights and wrongs. No matter what, please remember the pivotal role that you as an HR professional play to protect your employees and also making sure to preserve your company's reputation. There are, of course, no guarantees about anything in this World, but I have always felt that having a clear cut approach can at least help you feel that you did all that you could to intervene and will lessen the stress from doing nothing. What are you supposed to do when abuse, harassment or any inappropriate behaviour is reported?

Seven little steps on how to navigate when it does happen :

Establish procedures. Be pre-emptive, even if you have most congenial work environment.

Establishing processes and defined written policies on the subject is a must. If you have an employee handbook or any other documented policies relating to discrimination and harassment, follow those policies to the core. Do not open yourself up to claims of unfair treatment by bending the rules. You should enforce a written anti-harassment policy. If it's breached, an employee should be encouraged to file a complaint.

Educate yourself. Brushing up your knowledge and keeping yourself updated on local as well as laws of the countries you are operating in is always a plus point. Doing some research on the law of discrimination and harassment - what it is, how it is proven in court, and what your responsibilities are as an employer will always keep you in a confident environment and you will add value to your employer.

Deal with respect and compassion. It takes a lot to complain about harassment. More than often than not one finds it extremely difficult to complain about discrimination or harassment. They feel vulnerable and afraid of the consequences and most of the times families do not support it. This can have an impact on their personal lives, career, the quality of their work and it can also lead them to seek outside assistance. It is always important to make your employee feel that they are dealt with respect and compassion. The bottom line is whether an employee comes to you with a seemingly small gesture or a complaint about major egregious conduct, you are legally required to look into the matter and engage in a prompt and thorough investigation.

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