Even in a developed country like the US, sexual harassment at the workplace first became illegal only around three decades ago. Ever since then, various employers across the globe soon began making sexual harassment awareness training compulsory for all their employees. Yet, data shows that sexual harassment is not only alive but thriving in most workplaces.
What’s more is that there is hardly any proof that trainings can actually stop sexual harassment. In 2016, the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EOCC), based on analysis by a special task force it assigned to investigate workplace harassment, concluded that “much of the training done over the past 30 years has not worked as a prevention tool.” What was even more shocking was that the commission only found 3 prior studies that evaluated sexual harassment training programmes during that period, with the most recent one being 15 years old!
Now, with the recent #metoo and #timesup campaigns providing a powerful platform for victims of sexual crime to share their stories, many US as well as European employers are now amplifying their zero tolerance stance on any form of harassment by fine-tuning their compliance policies and procedures.
However, unlike the West, India still has a lot of catching up to do when it comes to addressing sexual harassment at the workplace. This can be seen from the fact that not only has the country ‘recently’ enacted a serious law— (The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace [Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal] Act, 2013)—to prevent sexual harassment at the workplace, that law currently ‘only’ offers protection and provision to female victims of the offence.
This biased approach towards a key workplace issue (which several incidents confirm is one that definitely affects both genders) sadly also determines how most organisations and their employees choose to address it.
Now, besides being considered as just a women’s issue even by law, sexual harassment is also often perceived as a problem that affects only the victims and not organisations or society on the whole.
These notions can also trickle into most sexual harassment awareness training, causing these programmes to become completely ineffective or dangerously backfire.
Here’s how to prevent this from happening in your organisation:
Hire more women: In India’s male-dominated workforce (only 27% is female, according to a World Bank report), which is steeped with social issues related to patriarchy and gender inequality, women become ready targets for sexual harassment. In this scenario, employers who focus on workplace diversity and inclusion, especially on having equal number of male and female employees in senior positions in their workforce, are finding it easier to create a work culture free of gender bias and harassment. This approach has also found favour from the likes of Facebook COO and author of ‘Lean In’ Sheryl Sandberg who believes that since sexual harassment is largely about power, the best way to deal with this key workplace issue is to not just hire more women (to at least 50% of the workforce), but to mentor, advise and promote them.
Include Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) training: Since 2013, search engine giant Google has been investing in unconscious bias training, and has already trained over 60,000 of its employees so far. The company’s training is backed by research that shows that awareness of one’s own unconscious biases can also help reverse them. By integrating sexual harassment awareness into a larger diversity and inclusion campaign, employers can enable their workforce to understand the impact of any form of discrimination on individuals as well as the overall organisation.
Build robust POSH policies and procedures: In a survey by the Indian National Bar Association, nearly 69% of the female respondents said their company did not follow the stipulations mandated by the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013. When employers do not priotise their prevention of sexual harassment at the workplace (POSH) policies and procedures, they not only run the risk of incurring huge legal and business losses but also of diluting/cancelling the benefits that a diverse and inclusive workforce can offer to their organisations.
Introduce gender-neutral regulations: A survey conducted by Economic Times-Synovate in 2010 revealed that men are as vulnerable to sexual harassment as the women in India. Yet, the current laws in the country offer no protection to them. This gender-biased legal approach towards sexual harassment can sadly reinforce the misconception that men are only perpetrators of the offence and also reduce any male support in awareness and training programmes conducted by employers. By formulating and practising gender-neutral regulations, employers can garner equal participation of male employees during anti-sexual harassment training programmes.
Seek expert assistance: Studies show that most businesses in India do not comply with sexual harassment laws because of lack of expert assistance. This is hardly surprising given the complex and subjective nature of the offence. However, keeping in mind the magnitude of the problem and its potential impact on a business and its reputation, employers must ensure that they seek expert opinion to ensure that their policies, procedures as well as training programmes are approachable, effective and more importantly, do not backfire in any way. Besides being seen as more approachable, independent specialists/organisations can also help in the prevention, prohibition and redressal of sexual harassment using focused, up-to-date and unbiased methods and solutions.
Use a moral anchor: Elizabeth Tippence, an associate law professor at University of Oregon analysed 74 current and archival sexual harassment awareness trainings, watching slideshows and videos and reading written material right from the 1980s to the ones being currently used. From her study, Tippence found that contemporary trainings were only “a hollow exercise in corporate compliance that tend to emphasise that harassment is bad for workplace productivity”. She also found that the trainings underemphasized the essential moral point that harassment was a form of discrimination. A point she believed is the “moral anchor” to make anti-sexual harassment training more convincing.
Opt for artsy, interactive and on-ground training methods: A report by the EEOC in 2016 concluded that “most” anti-sexual harassment trainings failed as a prevention tool because they are “too focused on simply avoiding legal liability.” Research shows that besides the legal reasons, many employers also use online training programmes to facilitate data gathering. However, what they miss out on is the impact that interpersonal and innovative trainings—as opposed to irrelevant (and often boring) slideshows and videos—can offer. Several studies also show that infusing art into training programmes can dramatically increase a person’s self-awareness, empathy for others and in turn, their sensitivity towards topics such as sexual harassment.
Develop relevant, straightforward and actionable communication: Many awareness programmes sadly lose their effectiveness and can even backfire when their intent is lost in over-the-top communication. That means that even though business jargon or corporate speak does look professional on paper, it is not very effective when it comes to addressing all the employees in an organisation. By developing communication that is relevant, straightforward (using colloquial and local languages if necessary) and actionable, employers can ensure that their training programmes, especially on issues as sensitive as sexual harassment, are not misinterpreted, ignored or trivilaised.
Use a customised approach: While sexual harassment is an issue prevalent in nearly all industries across the world, the approach to create awareness on the subject will often differ due to several factors. For example, employers must first research the social and cultural environment of their business operations, their workforce demographics, and the current health of their organisation before developing any behavioural training programme. In its 2016 report, the EEOC also concluded that in order to be effective “anti-harassment trainings need to be a part of a holistic, company-wide strategy to prevent it from happening”. For this to happen, employers need to customise their trainings and not just copy what has worked for others, even if they are operating in the same industry.
Lead POSH at the workplace: Research shows that when leaders endorse or attend their organisation’s POSH training programmes, they can significantly encourage their workforce to report any incidents of sexual harassment without fear of retaliation. Through regular meets, leaders can also build trust among victims to speak up, use the whistle blowing channel, and reach the organisation’s ICC board members. Publicity of POSH programmes by leaders can also communicate their firm belief in zero tolerance for any kind of harassment and in turn, serve as a powerful deterrent to discrimination at the workplace.
Be.artsy—a for-profit social enterprise founded in 2010—uses art, technology and emotional intelligence to address social and workplace issues.
Our team of professional artists and industry experts are equipped to plan and implement effective and sustainable programmes that can connect with any audience—right from blue to white collar—in the areas of social awareness, financial literacy, corporate social responsibility, inclusion and diversity, employee engagement, and POSH at workplaces.
So far, we have successfully executed POSH campaigns for clients such as PepsiCo India, Airtel, and American Express. For further information, please contact Shikha at: [email protected]