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Indian Companies Should Empower Their Staff To Speak Up Against Sexual Harassment Faced By Colleagues

Bystander intervention is often encouraged in the West.

27/11/2017 12:22 PM IST | Updated 27/11/2017 12:22 PM IST
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Protesters attend a Me Too rally to denounce sexual harassment and assaults of women in Los Angeles, California on November 12, 2017.

"Oh, you are just being nice to her to get some action." Disquieting remarks like these, made about an employee's physical appearance are everyday occurrence at her workplace according to an associate at a leading advertising company in New Delhi. "What makes them even worse though is that everyone around just laughs at these comments," she adds.

Sexual harassment at the workplace, including offhand comments, outright sexual proposals or physical harassment by one's peers and bosses, is a global phenomenon. Polls by ABC Washington Post, Indian Bar Association, and Optimum Research reveal that 75% of American call workplace harassment a problem, and that 40% of the women in India and 1 in 5 women in the UK have experienced sexual harassment at the workplace.

Employees - both men and women - are immune to casual banter, says a senior manager at a leading hospitality company. "Usually, sexist comments are brushed off and not even acknowledged as being sexist. Comments such as, 'don't fight like a housewife' or 'you girls gossip all the time' are made even during formal meetings." Failure to implement anti-harassment policies by employers - coupled with a culture of tolerance, particularly by senior management, towards sexist behaviour has exacerbated the problem in India.

Even when policies are implemented, they often do not have the projected impact.

But even when policies are implemented, they often do not have the projected impact. Why is that? A report by Business Social Responsibility provides an interesting insight: "Sexual harassment is often a hidden issue. Communities often view violence against women as normal or acceptable, and the victims themselves may normalize their experiences and not see a reason to report it." Another study, commissioned by the Government of Ontario, found that only 37% of bystanders believed they had an obligation to intervene when witnessing sexual harassment at the workplace.

So if we want to solve the problem of sexual harassment, we need communities to step in. One way of doing to in the workplace is to get bystanders to act. But why do bystanders fail to speak? According to a study, published in the Harvard Business Review, the bystander may fail to speak out against sexual harassment for two reasons - diffusion of responsibility, as people mistakenly believe that others will help or are in a better position to help and because people are misled by the inaction of the people around them and accept that to be normal behaviour. The study also suggests that bystander intervention can be increased through bystander training, which can help with awareness and potential actions to take in a situation, and by improving organisations' culture.

One way of doing to in the workplace is to get bystanders to act. But why do bystanders fail to speak?

In the U.S., the Equal Employment Opportunity Council (EEOC), a federal agency, published a study recommending civility training and bystander intervention as effective approaches to prevent workplace harassment. The EEOC reports incivility at the workplace as an antecedent to harassment and gender biases, "as it creates a climate of 'general derision and disrespect' in which harassing behaviour is tolerated."

Therefore, holding civility training can be helpful as it teaches employees what to do rather than what not to do, to reduce workplace bullying and conflict. After significant allegations of workplace harassment, Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, implemented workplace civility training; it first experienced an increase in complaints - attributed to increased awareness after the training - and since experienced a 70% decline in complaints, and in severity of the types of harassment complaints, over the last three years.

Another study in the Fortune 500 companies revealed the best practices to prevent sexual harassment at the workplace were those of the Kimberly-Clark Corporation, Texaco, and AlliedSignal. Because "their programs were a visible part of their corporate philosophy and utilised a variety of communication and training techniques; were adapted to the unique qualities of their organisations and employee environments, and had a transparent complaint process with managers' roles well articulated."

Therefore, holding civility training can be helpful as it teaches employees what to do rather than what not to do, to reduce workplace bullying and conflict.

In the case of Kimberly-Clark employees are trained for 1-2 hours, and managers are trained for 3-4 hours, every two years. Further, since its employees often do 12-hour shifts at night, when there is less managerial supervision and chances of sexual misconduct taking place are higher, human resource managers often show up unannounced to conduct random checks.

Green Dot - a violation prevention organisation focused on providing bystander training - implemented its program in Anchorage, the city of Alaska. As a result, the bar and restaurant owners developed a new cultural norm and "both staff and patrons acquired new skills to respond to potential harassment or violence."

Out of the 72% respondents who thought they were complying with the Prevention of Sexual Harassment at Workplace Act, 2013 only 1.16% were.

In India, a survey conducted by the Institute of Company Secretaries of India revealed that out of the 72% respondents who thought they were complying with the Prevention of Sexual Harassment at Workplace Act, 2013 only 1.16% were, and 40% of the organisations had not conducted sensitisation programs to make employees aware about the provisions of the Act. Along with the strict enforcement of the Act, organisations can complement training mandated to create awareness about the workplace harassment policy, with training which focuses on prevention strategies such as the bystander and civility training programs. Each organisation can further device unique practices to ensure a safe working environment for its employees (as done by Kimberly Clark for late night shifts).

A report by the EEOC also lays stress on the importance of leadership accountability to foster a culture of zero tolerance. In fact, research shows that climate of an organisation can be the strongest predictor of sexual harassment. Such training strategies combined with an organisational culture of zero-tolerance, built by the top management, will seep through on all levels in an organisation to ensure reduction of sexual harassment at the workplace.

The opinions expressed in this post are the personal views of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the views of HuffPost India. Any omissions or errors are the author's and HuffPost India does not assume any liability or responsibility for them.

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