“My blood is boiling!” Swapna looked like she was ready to kill someone. It was an expression that was not familiar on her face. 

“I really wish Advait would stop staring at me. It is so annoying!” She was referring to a colleague, who was not part of her team but worked in the same organisation. She shared her work space with him. “In spite of telling him, he continues to watch me all the time!”

I made an unhelpful but the most obvious suggestion that came to mind. “Tell him again. More assertively this time.” 

She gave me an exasperated look. “Well, he denied that he stares. Also it is so awkward to keep telling someone that they have to stop staring! But I feel very self-conscious when he is around, especially when I am dressed in skirts.”

“You know, if he is making you so uncomfortable, you would be within your rights to raise a complaint of sexual harassment against him- especially since you have told him to stop.”

“Really? One can raise a complaint for staring?”

I smiled. “Yes. The staring is obviously very unwelcome, so, you are within your rights to raise a complaint. If you don’t want to raise a formal complaint, you can probably unofficially speak to one of the POSH committee members in your organisation, to understand more about your rights and the various options that are available to you.”

“I will never do that!”, Swapna replied vehemently. Seeing my surprised look she said, “If you knew the committee members in my organisation, you would never suggest this. I don’t think any of them has the maturity of dealing with this. I can just see them ridiculing it.” 

This conversation with Swapna kept playing in my mind and gave me an interesting insight: While organisations have put in place a committee in place, as per the mandate of the Prevention of Sexual Harassment Act, many of them seem to have done this on paper and not in spirit. 

The Act has been put in place to provide protection against sexual harassment at the workplace, and the POSH committee is to be the facilitator of this process. However, if employees of an organisation share views similar to that of Swapna, and in case the committee members are not perceived to be someone who will help resolve issues, employees will not approach them. The very purpose of forming the committee will then be lost. In such an environment, only very serious victimization cases would be brought to light. The milder and the simpler ones will remain unnoticed, and women will continue to suffer in silence the likes of Advait and his stares! 

As per the mandate, organisations are conducting training on investigative skills for their committee members, to equip them with the ability and wherewithal to handle complains and, of course to bring the cases to a conclusion. However, not enough impetus is being given to the manner in which the investigations are carried out. 

Hence, I have listed below some characteristics that are important for ICC members to cultivate in order to create the right environment and a harassment free culture. 

  • Ability to listen with an open mind, and resolve informal complaints
  • Being approachable, and being able to put the employee at ease while discussing or recounting an uncomfortable situation or experience
  • When the harassment is not of a serious nature, being able to provide advice to the employee on the various options that are available to her or him
  • Credibility, fairness & neutrality in conducting investigations
  • Providing necessary support to all parties involved
  • Ensuring that the dignity of the complainant and the respondent remains intact, especially during the investigation process
  • Sensitivity & open mind to not admonish the respondent early on in the case, or reprimand the complainant for taking action at a late stage, or be assertive enough against the harasser
  • Tuning into Emotional Intelligence and high levels of empathy to handle emotions that may be running high on both sides

Training in counselling skills will be helpful to enable the ICC members to build on the above mentioned characteristics. Care, however, will have to be taken that the committee does not take the role of a counsellor, but only learns the skills of a counsellor: maintaining distance from the parties involved in order to make a fair and reasonable judgement of the situation, remaining objective through the process, and actively listening and responding with empathy. 

Taking such steps will make the difference in implementing the POSH Act not just on paper but also in spirit, and making the workplace a safe space for all.

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