Sexual Harassment – Raising the voice early is still the best solution

26 Apr,2017


By Sanjeev Kotnala


In the recent times, there have been multiple high-profile cases of sexual harassment reported in the media. Some of the prominent ones are Arunabh Kumar, RK Pachauri, Tarun Tejpal, Ashok Kumar Ganguly, Mahesh Murthy and Sumant Bhattacharya.

In September 2016, The Economic Times reported that there was a 26 per cent rise in cases of sexual harassment in NIFTY50 companies. Here, out of a total of 525 reported cases, Wipro (111), ICICI (87) and Infosys (62) make an unhealthy 50 per cent of the cases. ET in a mild tone hinted that this rise in reported cases may be a result of more robust processes and systems in the corporate world to handle the situation, increase in the number of women employees and lack of women in senior positions. In fact in case of IT companies a large chunk of cases are reported from abroad. Does it make any difference?

In an article by Cassandra Jaramillo on August 18, 2016, Wall Street Journal noted that as per the new study by American Association of Advertising agencies, more than 50 per cent of the women in advertising have faced sexual harassment at least once in their career. It included cases of sexual discrimination and not being included into meetings and discussions. March 2016 saw male Chief executive of a large multi-national advertising company sued by a female subordinate for unending stream of racist and sexist comments.

Every one of us has heard of rumours about sexual harassment in the advertising industry. Sometimes, we have also indulged in the washroom banter and laughed about things that did not concern us. However, we don’t have any data or report to refer. At least, I am not aware of any data available for companies operating in the Advertising, Media and Marketing sectors, which does have a large women employee population. Is it possible for voluntary disclosure by member of AAAI, IAA, Ad Club? It will be a welcome and relevant information that women may want to know while making their career decisions.

It is not that men have suddenly turned predators, and hopefully the situation has not worsened. It’s most likely is the case of more women finding courage to raise their voice. In fact, one has seen that whenever there is a sexual case against any position of power, it opens floodgates of fresh allegations and reporting. They no longer accept it as a cost to career growth or as something that just happens.

Thankfully, the times are changing. No longer, people accept its as ‘Chalta hai’ . The predator’s confidence is shaken if not broken. He no longer roams the power corridors and sits in his own small jungle waiting for the next prey. He is finally unsure of his ability to get away with it without risking injury to his pride, status or image.

However, we are far from idealistic situation. A small step would be to plant shame where it belongs. Unfortunately, the injury and damages are still more on the woman, be it physically, mentally or emotionally.

So, what are we talking about?

Sexual harassment is every single incident of unwelcome sexual behaviour. Anything that can be expected to make the person feel offended, humiliated or intimidated is sexual harassment.

It can be physical, verbal or written. It includes acts like indecent exposure, stalking, sexual assault, obscene or threatening communications, by phone, letter, emails, SMS, or posting irrelevant damaging material on social platforms.

It includes sending suggestive letters, notes, or e-mails, displaying inappropriate sexual images or posters in the workplace, telling lewd jokes, or sharing sexual anecdotes, making inappropriate sexual gestures, staring in a sexually suggestive or offensive manner, or whistling, making sexual comments about appearance, clothing, or body part, inappropriate touching, including pinching, patting, rubbing, or purposefully brushing up against another person, asking sexual questions, such as questions about someone’s sexual history or their sexual orientation and making offensive comments about someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity. And this is not an exhaustive list.

Mostly reported known cases centre around physical contact or advances, demand or request for sexual favours, making sexually coloured remarks, showing pornography, and other unwelcome physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of sexual nature.

Sexual harassment can be clubbed in two distinct categories.

‘Quid pro quo’, where a gain/ something is promised in return to willingly suffering and accepting sexual harassment or exploitation. There is a specific promise made that hints towards a particular path the career of the victim will take due to acceptance or rejection of the sexual act.

The other is a hostile work environment created within the organisation. Unfortunately in this case, a single incidence cannot be construed as a hostile environment. Hence, it necessitates that the victim proves a series of incidents and situations to make her case. It makes it a lot more difficult to pursue or prove. The victim knows this and at times ends up compromising with the situation.

Breaking some myth regarding sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment at work is not confined to the work premises. Law sees a wider scope and agrees that it can take place at work, at work-related events, between people sharing the same workplace and even colleague outside the workspace. It further expands its scope to include contractors, agents, clients, vendors and any other stakeholder or business associate the women need to interact during her job.

In 2014, in reply to a question, Menaka Gandhi in Parliament stated that said that only 8-10% of the sexual harassment cases reported to her ministry happened in what we loosely refer as work premises.

Not objecting to an objectionable act / behavior at a point of time, does not mean acceptance or consent. ‘No is NO’ and a ‘no- yes’ is also a ‘NO’. Men unfortunately believe otherwise.

The law clearly leaves it for the woman to decide that what makes her discomfort able and what she is comfortable with.

I am not sure how many women are aware of their internal committees, guidelines and processes in their organisation dealing with sexual harassment. Click here for the Sexual Harassment handbook, everyone should read it.

Any organisation with more than 10 employees is expected to implement the guidelines for complaints’ handling and must have an ‘Internal Complaints Committee’. Many don’t have it and the ones who have it have done nothing to educate and sensitize women and other employees. It is not mandatory that the sexual harassment incident must be reported to the boss. As many fear collusion and man bonding to prevent unbiased hearing. The internal guidelines must specify the process and usually have a differential route to report in case the instigator is the boss himself.

No one speaks. Most take the easy way out.

They change jobs, request internal transfer, stop working and in some cases compromise with the situation. Most victims fear pointing fingers at the instigator who is causing discomfort or creating a hostile environment. It is never easy. For many victims, it is a choice between having a job and being jobless. There usually is a power imbalance or a financial need.

On one side, in the social matrix, the stigma is always attached to the women, and on the other side news of such incidents kills future job prospects. No one wants trouble makers!

We as a society have rarely demonstrated the desired sensitivity to make the victim comfortable to report. There are many people and levers in the life of the victim, pushing her to sacrifice and suffer in isolation.

One of the victim’s worry is the big question. What if the complaint is not taken seriously. The working situation in the organisation anyway becomes difficult for her. More challenging are the unsaid questions and rumours where many things are left for the recipient’s imagination to complete the loop.

The fear that the investigation / case may drag and there are more chances of it remaining inconclusive is high. It is seen that in such cases, it benefits the accused and is not in favor of the victim.

Nobody stops to read the hidden meaning of being inconclusive. It just means that there is not a sufficient reason to believe if the incidents happened or not. Not being able to prove an allegation does not mean that it is a false/malicious complaint. The case remains inconclusive because of lack of evidence. Hence, at least in the case of creation of hostile environment, it is advised that the victim keeps records of the incidences in writing. It allows for confrontation and confirmations, as the facts do not get fogged with time.

At every stage, the woman is faced with a tough question. Is she willing to take the legal route?

The internal committee though directed by the law has repeatedly failed to protect the identity of the woman. The penalty for this lapse is negligible. The judiciary has failed to raise the confidence that there will be a swift terminal conclusion to the case.

In the new world, social and media justice favours the victim but it bars no one from taking pot shot at the accused. The reputation is at stake at both the ends, but it is the woman who has more to lose. Sorry, but that is the society we have created and live in.

There is something erratically wrong within the system. It always needs a whistle blower to give courage to other victims to come out in open. And then, the society looks at them with suspicion and questions their motives for remaining silent for long. Media takes a unilateral decision and uses a biased brush to paint one of the sides as a possible victim, and that necessarily may not be the woman.

Sexual harassment is normally a slow burner. The signals at the start are much softer and disguised. One is usually in a better position to take preventive steps at the initial stages than by waiting for a conclusive favourable twist to the case. It is better to report early and snip the behavior in the bud. The predator normally tests his victim’s reactions and capability to react and easily backs out if snubbed at the start.

Mostly, it works, But in some case the accused may not stop / mend/ change the behavior. Then, it seems that it becomes the responsibility of the victim to generate proof. Not sure, if one should recommend investment in the new miniature-recording devices to collect the evidence. Nevertheless, it is always better to keep records of incidences, work progress and reviews. If they are with you at home, you will not be left stranded knowing that they are no longer accessible to you. Keep the message / call details if they are used to harass.

Do note that delay in reporting, it tends to lesser the chances of favourable decision and closure?

Unfortunately until women speak out, sexual harassment will go unnoticed. No one will comes to know about it and anyway no one else wants to speak and take action.

Everyone acts like an ostrich. Nothing like it happens in their organization! And if it does, they don’t want such issues to come out in open. Their impact on brand value is seen as more damaging than the effect on the victim. HR and Management motivation is to sort it out. From the start, it smells of an un-natural bias to prove the complaint unfounded.

It is still in everyone’s interest to prevent such behavior from a minority of employees. Every organization must find time to make an effort to create awareness, share their process and policies and across gender. It is time that individually we act.


Sanjeev Kotnala, Contributing Editor,, is a senior industryperson, strategy consultant and trainer. The views expressed here are his own.


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