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#MeToo and Indian workplaces: Advocate Sonal Mattoo on the movement's lessons for organisations

As #MeToo allegations — many of them detailing harassment that occurred in professional situations — continue to tumble out on social media, what is the mandate for Indian workplaces? Advocate Sonal Mattoo, the founder of Helping Hands (which helps organisations implement policies against sexual harassment, become more gender sensitive, tackle other forms of harassment and discrimination at the workplace, and investigate complaints), spoke with Firstpost’s correspondent about the way ahead.

While the #MeToo allegations that have emerged on social media recently do refer to harassment in the sphere of personal/private life, many are concerned with the workplace. As a professional observing these stories, what are your views?

Among the #MeToo allegations that concern the workplace, the trend we’ve seen is that these accounts are mostly against people who are/have been in a managerial capacity, someone whom others report to.

That’s perhaps one of the reasons women are not comfortable speaking out about harassment when they are part of the organisation.

But when they have chosen to speak up, I think — wherever an organisation has the ability to take up these cases — even if it means taking suo motu cognisance of the matter, they should.

What to you have been the most striking features of this wave of #MeToo allegations concerning the workplace?

In instances where I support an organisation and we’ve been looking into these cases, we’ve found merit in the concerns. We’ve seen multiple people speak out about one individual’s behaviour. So the theory of sexual harassment being a pattern of behaviour is emerging very clearly.

 #MeToo and Indian workplaces: Advocate Sonal Mattoo on the movements lessons for organisations

#MeToo has created a platform where women — or anyone who has faced sexual harassment — can speak out, and be counted

What are some of the issues these #MeToo stories have flagged that workplaces and employers will now need to be more conscious of?

In many of these cases, the women are speaking up for the first time; this had not been brought to the organisation’s notice earlier. Now that it has been brought to their attention, organisations are looking into it in whatever capacity they can.

Another issue that’s coming up is that some women had spoken about their experiences to certain people, and these people, in turn, made excuses for the behaviour flagged, saying things like “just deal with it”. This is where irresponsible behaviour has been displayed.

With organisations, the rule of thumb now should be — whenever you hear of it, irrespective of whether the woman gives it to you in writing or verbally — if somebody is expressing their discomfort, take it up; don’t wait for the formalities of a written complaint.

Do you think these stories are going to change the modern workplace or working relationships in any way? Will the change — in your opinion — be for the better or worse?

#MeToo has definitely unsettled a lot of people. I think this is a positive development because people will now understand that they cannot get away with that kind of behaviour.

I do hope #MeToo will not make organisations wary of hiring women — that would be immature, and sad. That’s not the interpretation we should be placing on these events. If organisations stop hiring men, that would be equally ridiculous.

Instead, create forums and channels via which women can complain without fear of retaliation.

The bar will be raised, and there will be greater awareness. There will be clear standards for what is acceptable behaviour and what is not.

Legally, what does the #MeToo movement mean for the Indian workplace?

I’ve been fortunate in partnering with organisations that have taken this very seriously. In my two decades’ of practice in this area, every organisation — barring that 0.1 percent — I’ve partnered with, whether to raise awareness or conduct an inquiry, has taken it very seriously. Right from awareness sessions to training for the IC (internal committee), I can hold the organisations I work with to standards of exemplary behaviour, with very strong cognisance of these matters.

Going forward, organisations are going to take this very seriously: If someone steps forward with a complaint, it will not be dismissed on the grounds of seniority or lack thereof, or “that’s just how Person X is”.

I think organisations also need to commit to ensuring that these provisions are not misused. If we follow due process, protocol and spread awareness, it is going to be a win-win situation.

How/where do you think modern workplaces have failed their female employees? Where have they succeeded?

Where we’ve succeeded is organisations that take sexual harassment very seriously have gone beyond treating compliance (with the laws) as a mere tick in a box.

We may say, “Okay, we are compliant, we have an IC and we have policies” — but no one knows who the committee members are, or are scared of approaching them, or when they do approach the committee, they are not heard or are dismissed.

The organisations that go above and beyond are the ones that say, “Let’s make this a gender-neutral policy” or “let’s make people safe and comfortable”. An example is, when complaints come in against someone very senior, you take the same strong action as you would for someone at the lower rung — if not stronger. You don’t get dismissive because the complaint is against a great performer or a senior. These are the organisations that have done well.

The organisations that have failed are the ones that don’t understand the seriousness of the issue, or lack the sensitivity to take it forward. They do it as a tick-in-the-box exercise, instead of investing sufficient time, energy and resources.

I think it is really a question of intent: If the company wants to do it, you don’t need the law to support you. If your intentions are good and you promise to provide a safe environment, you don’t need the law — you will go beyond the law. The entire thing boils down to the intent and will of the organisation.

The ones with strong value systems will take this forward.

What is the moral responsibility of employers in cases like these?

Morality is very individual; what I may consider moral may not be the same as others.

So I’ll step away from morality and talk about the ‘spirit’ of the law instead: You have the ‘letter of the law’, which says take six copies of your complaint to the IC. And then there’s the ‘spirit of the law’ — where, when somebody comes to you and raises a concern, will you tell them “go get me six copies and only then will I take cognisance of your complaint”?

If companies really want to do the right thing, I would say do what the ‘spirit’ of the law requires. Of course, you will fulfil the ‘letter’ of the law — but don’t make it uncomfortable for people who come to you in emotionally difficult moments of their lives and career.

From a moral standpoint, I will stand up for what is right. If you look at somebody going through harassment, you might not be the affected party but you are seeing it, so step up and support them. Don’t take a back seat thinking ‘why should I make a big deal out of it?’. If you are in a position of power and authority, you don’t have to be the affected person. Voice counts; so use your voice for something good.

Many of these stories of workplace harassment go back decades… how much have workplaces evolved — in terms of legal recourse and such options — to tackle instances of harassment?

Post-2013, statutory guidelines have come in place. We have a proper statute and acts and things have become much better. But the Supreme Court and Vishaka Guidelines have been in existence since 1997, so companies should have woken up 21 years ago and started working on those guidelines! Many of them have.

I think what has changed is the number of women in leadership roles. When you have more representation on the board and in leadership, it’s easier for women working in the organiation. Because the policies being made then are by women, for women. There’s a lot more sensitivity.

I do believe that having more women as decision-makers is what has changed the scenario at a lot of companies.

What is the way forward for Indian workplaces and employers (legally) — in the immediate future and in the years to come?

To take these issues seriously.

I am not saying it in light of #MeToo or because we have to be in damage control mode. But take it forward: a conducive work environment fosters productivity and benefits the organisation. So, raise awareness, have support groups where those who have faced untoward behaviour can come forward and complain.

Legally, you should be filing returns at the end of the year detailing the number of cases you had, the number of awareness sessions you have conducted, the outcome of the cases — what actions you have taken within the stipulated time frame. All of this now needs to go into the annual report of the organisation. This transparency makes people sit up and do the right thing. There are monetary fines for non-compliance.

Let women know that they can speak out without any fear of retaliation. That is one huge step forward as a lot of women worry about the consequences on their careers of reporting incidents like these, or what if their parents find out, or if they will be blamed for ‘contributing’ to this behaviour.

An organisation needs to educate its employees on what constitutes sexual harassment. Because the law against sexual harassment at the workplace is such a progressive and empowering one, I think people should also be educated on how not to misuse the policy. Please don’t bring complaints that are not sexual harassment to this forum; if it’s workplace harassment, take that to HR. It takes away credibility from genuine complains when people misuse forums like these. So a combination of reassuring employees while also speaking about what constitutes misuse — I think makes for a good environment.

How can they use legal provisions to make the workplace safer for all employees?

If you are an employer, there are guidelines to ensure that your employees are treated in a respectful manner.

It is common sense, more than the law: You come in to work; you want to be in a safe environment where you can work freely without somebody being disrespectful to you, without somebody treating you badly, without somebody being abusive towards you, and without somebody touching you or feeling you up just because they are in a position of authority.

Companies must ensure that all employees adhere to their code of conduct; the code of conduct details all these concerns very clearly. It ensures a very strong disciplinary matrix, saying that if there are violations, there will be consequences to your behaviour and action will be taken accordingly.

Apart from this, if a complainant is concerned about her safety and security outside the workplace, or if she wants to file a police complaint about an incident that occurred while she was employed, the organisation shouldn’t shy away from supporting her. All the woman would have to do is, write to the ICC saying ‘I require support in filing a police case’ and somebody from the organisation should accompany her because many people aren’t familiar with how to lodge a police complaint.

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Updated Date: Oct 16, 2018 10:32:32 IST

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