Corporate India’s #MeToo and the Responsible Leader

Promila Ayyangar

Promila Ayyangar

Promila is an OD Consultant and Executive Coach who helps organizations and leaders envision and manage organizational and personal transformation successfully. Passionate about women’s rights to equality and justice, Promila is the external member on the Internal Complaints committees (ICCs) against sexual harassment at workplace (POSH) in a number of organizations. Loves yoga, travel, dogs, art, Indian villages and Hindi music of all genres. She actively volunteers for Daan Utsav, The Joy of Giving Week as a volunteer.

In October 2017, the use of simple hashtag #MeToo, led to a tectonic shift that caused one of the oldest power equations in the world to crumble overnight. Alyssa Milano[1], a Hollywood actress, tweeted #MeToo in her effort to campaign for awareness about sexual abuse, especially at  the workplace. It tailed behind the public revelations of sexual misconduct allegations against one of the most powerful men in Hollywood -Harvey Weinstein, founder of Miramax Films and Co-chairman of The Weinstein Company.  To give people a sense of the magnitude and frequency of the problem, Alyssa urged women to tweet about their personal experiences with sexual harassment, leading to a shocking deluge of ‘me too’ across the internet.

Twitter raged with responses from several celebrities, some choosing to name and shame the high-profile men in question.  By the end of the first day, the hashtag had been used more than 200,000 times and by the end of the second day the numbers towered around 500,000. On Facebook, the hashtag was used by more than 4.7 million people in 12 million posts during the first 24 hours. Tens of thousands of people replied with unbelievably painful yet all too familiar #MeToo stories. It kept growing beyond all cultural, economic and political barriers, encircling some 85 countries.

#MeToo had provided sexual harassment at workplace, a voice, something that had been a hush hush topic for decades.  It brought the topic in the open and made it a part of our daily fabric of consciousness and active conversations across board rooms, coffee corners and dining tables.

Sexual Harassment at Workplace in India

The Indian corporate world has once again been jolted into acknowledging the scale of workplace sexual harassment and abuse with #Me Too.  One of the recent cases brought to fore were allegations against Mahesh Murthy, co-founder of Seedfund, by author Rashmi Bansal and 6 other women who alleged that Murthy had, in conversations, texts and meetings behaved inappropriately with them. Arunabh Kumar, CEO of The Viral Fever (TVF) has been accused of sexual harassment by a shocking number of women employees at TVF.  Some of the other big names that fell from grace were RK Pachauri Director-General  TERI in 2015,  repeat offender Phaneesh Murthy at Infosys (2002) & at iGate (2013), David Davidar of Penguin Canada (2010), Asok Kumar Ganguly, the former Supreme Court judge (2014), Tarun Tejpal editor-in-chief of Tehelka magazine (2013) and perhaps the first ever high-profile case reported in India of KPS Gill, DGP Punjab in (1988).

The cases of sexual harassment at work in India have been rising steadily.  According to NCRB statistics, cases of sexual harassment of women within workplaces grew by more than 100% between 2014-2015. However, the bitter truth is that 70% of working women in India, do not report workplace harassment despite the law, due to poor handling and compliance. So, the actual number of such cases must be staggering, running into several thousands.

Since December 2013 when the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 (POSH Act 2013) came into being, only a handful of organizations have made efforts to comply, by creating anti-sexual harassment policies and redressal procedures. This could be pegged on the government’s failure to enforce the law strictly.  

As a responsible and responsive organizational leader, how should you ensure that the women in your organization are given their fundamental right to equality and dignity at the workplace? Do we even understand all the different dimensions of behaviors that constitute sexual harassment at work? Our law defines the responsibility of the organizational leadership to provide the following to every woman employee:

·      Right to life and to live with dignity and safety

·      Right to gender equality

·      Right to liberty and equality in working conditions 

·      Prevention of hostile work environment

·      Prevention of ‘quid pro quo’ harassment

As an external member on the Internal Complaints Committees (ICC’s) of a number of organizations, I get to sit through official hearings of many such complaints made by women. The common ones that I see are some or all of the following:

·      Use of unacceptable language and gestures- includes swear words, demeaning statements about the gender or the specific woman colleague, sexually-laced innuendos and obscene gestures.

·      Making a woman feel isolated or targeted by male colleagues, by ganging up with other male members.

·      Sexual abuse and exploitation, especially of a reporting team member.

·      Stalking- physical or through electronic media.

·      Sharing of suggestive or explicit content including jokes, videos and pictures.

By no means is the above list exhaustive.  However, the common theme seems to be the creation of an unequal power equation and to then move to use it for personal entertainment or to extract sexual favors by threatening with adverse outcomes.  

Under such circumstances, it is quite natural for the woman to feel extremely vulnerable causing an increase in stress, fear and deep insecurity about their job, marriage, family life, career prospects and finances. While the number of such cases and the enormity they represent is grim enough, what is more shocking is the apathy of organizational leaders and their unfailing ability to cover and keep up appearances.

What actions should the CEOs take urgently?

The actions needed on the ground are clearly stated in the Posh Act. The Act defines sexual harassment at the work place and creates a mechanism for redressal of complaints. It also provides safeguards against false or malicious charges.

 Some critical actions that should be urgently taken are:

1.      Appoint the ICC for the organization as per the guidelines including the external POSH consultant.  The Constitution has granted ICC, powers of the civil court, for gathering evidence..

2.      Get an external POSH consultant to help you craft the policy, train your leadership teams, ICC members and employees.

3.      Set up a complaint handling system where any woman employee should be able to share her complaint, in a confidential manner, directly with the CEO or the HR head.

4.      Get the ICC to study the complaint on top priority basis and respond to the complainant within 7 days of the filing of complaint. Initiate the hearing processes for redressal ASAP. The discreet investigation of the case with due diligence is most important. Hold the hearings outside the office if privacy may be compromised.

5.      Take swift action based on the recommendations of the findings by the ICC.

These actions will help sift acceptable and unacceptable behaviors across the organization and in the process build the confidence of all women employees. It is time each leader commits to making them feel safe, equal, empowered and thus proud to be a part of your organization.

  1. In 2006, Tarana Burke, a social activist and community organizer, began using the phrase “Me Too” as part of a grassroots campaign to promote “empowerment through empathy” among women of color who had experienced sexual abuse. However, the viral nature of the social media enabled the unprecedented scale of calling out, disclosures and support against this global malaise in 2017.

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