In this second part of CB’s deep dive into sexual harassment at workplaces, we try to dispel some myths and look at some studies on how corporate India is dealing (or not) with this problem. CB had reached out to over 50 large companies across sectors to understand how they currently deal with such cases, what are some of the problems faced, and what can be done better. Unfortunately, few companies were forthcoming with their responses. This is emblematic of two things: a) companies don’t consider sexual harassment to be an important issue, and b) they are still stuck with the discredited principle that anything that’s not PR is not worth engaging with.

What data says
As per National Commission for Women (NCW) data, the rise in sexual harassment cases at workplace has been quite marginal: from 170 cases in 2011 to 167 in 2012, 249 in 2013, and 336 in 2014. These numbers are woefully low and shows how far this country has to go on this issue.

A 2015 NCRB report showed a substantial increase in the ‘assault on women with intent to outrage her/their modesty’ (assault on women) crime, from 42,968 in 2011 to 82,422 in 2015. This particular crime head includes the sexual harassment provision of Section 354A of the IPC. In 2015, the highest numbers of such cases were reported in Maharashtra (11,713), Madhya Pradesh (8,049) and Uttar Pradesh (7,885). Of these cases, 24,041 were registered under sexual harassment, with Uttar Pradesh (5,925) leading the way followed by Maharashtra (4,751 cases).

In the 2016 report, the number of such cases had increased to 84,746, led again by Maharashtra (11,396), Uttar Pradesh (11,335) and Madhya Pradesh (8,717). Sexual harassment cases accounted for 27,344 of this number. It may be noted that 7,001 of the 32,115 completed cases for the assault on women crime resulted in a conviction.

Interestingly, a little more than 5 per cent of assault on women cases and less than 4 per cent of sexual harassment cases were found to be false, which ideally should put claims of false accusations by men’s rights groups to rest, but then misogyny runs rampant in our society. Studies on false accusations in other countries have the same conclusions.

As data has repeatedly shown, for gendered crimes, false reports by women – whether for vengeance, profiteering or any other reason – are negligible and are no different from other crimes such as cheating and kidnapping. A study by Kolkata-based organisation Swayam, based on NCRB data from 2005 to 2009, showed that 90 per cent of all complaints under 498A (commonly known as the anti-dowry law – it is the law for cases where the husband or relative of husband of a woman subjects her to cruelty) were found to be true on investigation. Ten per cent were declared false on account of ‘mistake of fact or of law’. The number of false cases was much higher for cheating, kidnapping and abduction, and criminal breach of trust.

What research says
A study of the top 100 BSE-listed companies for 2016–17 by Complykaro, a regulatory compliance firm, found that 621 complaints were registered at 90 of these companies. The previous year’s figure stood at 549. Women-led companies had a higher number of such complaints – for example ICICI, Axis, State Bank of India, which indicates that having a woman at top leadership positions provides some kind of encouragement and confidence to women employees to air their grievances. Of the top 10 companies with the highest number of complaints, 8 were from the financial and IT sectors. This could be either because they employ a higher number of women or have better processes and more informed, empowered employees. Wipro, TCS, Infosys and Tata Steel were some of the companies in the top 10. The key point to note here is that more complaints means more transparency and better redressal mechanisms. The challenge is to encourage more women to come forward whilst simultaneously ensuring that the structures that enable harassment are broken down.

Some like Bajaj Auto, HDFC Ltd, Hero MotoCorp and RIL reported no such cases for 2016–17 which sounds fantastical (but as we found out later, is quite common). Interestingly, in almost all companies where such complaints were filed, most cases were disposed of in time with appropriate action taken. Since it would be difficult to verify these claims (the law only requires disclosure of the number of cases and their current status), one just has to hope that they are true.

This analysis, albeit limited in scope, looked at 52 of the 100 BSE-listed companies that were required by SEBI to disclose the number of women employees in their ranks and the number of sexual harassment charges made by them since 2012–13. The number of such cases have seen a steady increase over the years, which should be taken as an encouraging sign since that means that more women are coming forward and speaking out. The biggest share of these cases was in services such as IT and banking, but when adjusted for the number of women employees, auto and infrastructure companies came out top.

However, even with these somewhat encouraging signs, the number of complaints still remain quite low. A 2016 survey by the Indian National Bar Association found that 38 per cent of the 6,047 participants had faced sexual harassment in their workplaces, with around 69 per cent of the victims not filing any complaint out of fear of negative repercussions. About a two-third of the respondents said that their companies did not follow the processes laid down by the 2013 Act, and 50 per cent of the victims ended up leaving the organisations. As many as 93.5 per cent of the participants agreed that harassment occurs in society too, besides workplaces, with 54 per cent admitting that they had witnessed, perpetrated, or been a target of it. A 2015 survey by EY-FICCI among corporates found that 31 per cent of the respondents were not compliant with the Act; 40 per cent were yet to train their ICC members (as mandated by the Act), and 35 per cent were ignorant of the consequences for non-compliance when constituting ICCs. Many companies, including 71 per cent of small and medium firms, did not display the consequences of sexual harassment prominently, as required by the Act, while awareness sessions and campaigns on the same were missing in more than a few.

What companies say
CB’s questionnaire on sexual harassment was sent to companies across sectors. A few managed to give detailed responses and here’s what we managed to parse out as the main highlights.

All companies claim to follow the provisions of the 2013 Act, including training of the ICC members, displaying the notice related to the Act, constituting the ICCs, etc.

For Mahindra, the number of sexual harassment cases has remained constant in single digits since 2012–13. Nestle had two, while Philips, ITC and Aptech received no complaints in the last financial year (2016–17). For such large companies, this seems quite improbable and they would do well to take stock of the reasons behind this low rate of reporting. Yes Bank had 10 such cases in the same year, with 7 disposed of by the time the annual report was issued. In stark contrast, Infosys had 111 cases of sexual harassment in 2016–17, 85 for the previous year, and 96 in FY 2015. The company sees this increase as an indication that ‘its employees trust the company’s process to do the right thing and address their concerns.’ Most companies have not reported any significant increase in the number of such cases, with ITC actually seeing a drop in the last FY (it was 7 in 2015–16). It will be interesting to see the figures for FY 2019 (since MeToo erupted in late 2017). Vodafone refused to share their numbers and declined to provide a reason for this secrecy.

No specific concerns about false accusations or difficulty in finding qualified members for the ICC were reported.

Companies prefer the rhetoric of ‘zero tolerance’ towards sexual harassment as both policy and deterrent. For Yes Bank, open communication, awareness creation and periodic reiteration of the laws are vital in encouraging more women to come forward with their cases. Other reinforcing mechanisms are refresher sessions that Infosys and Philips India mandate for all employees; Philips ensures that these are also taken up during annual meets and other large group meetings. Policies and rules around sexual harassment also form a part of most companies’ corporate induction programmes for all new incumbents. Vodafone ensures line managers are trained to understand their role in creating a harassment-free work environment.

Campaigns and workshops to generate awareness are the favourite methods to educate employees on sexual harassment. Mandatory trainings are the go-to mechanisms to ensure basic levels of awareness. Women-only networks such as Mahindra World of Women have become almost as ubiquitous as team-building offsites although there’s no clarity if these forums prioritise sexual harassment as one of their focal areas. Yes Bank has a special gender initiative called ‘Say YES to G.R.A.C.E’ (Gender Respect and Commitment to Equality) for all employees, irrespective of gender. For Canon India, President and CEO Kazutada Kobayashi said, ‘One of our key endeavours has been WE@Canon, which stands for Women Empowerment at Canon where the senior women leaders are my advisors, leading initiatives that aim to have a healthy diversity in our organisation, including gender diversity.’ Philips has a training calendar specifically for sexual harassment, deployed through mediums like videos and case studies to help all employees comprehend this topic. Business leaders co-facilitate these sessions to lead by example.

The guidelines from the Act are used to provide support to the complainant, such as discussions with one of the ICC members of their choice to guide them on the process, internal transfers to another team or location, and leave of up to three months. Yes Bank has a safe and secure platform for female employees to express their concerns to the ICC directly. Confidentiality is guaranteed in all aspects of such cases. Canon India and ITC have an open-door policy that encourages employees to discuss such issues without apprehension. Canon also has a portal for victims to register their complaints anonymously.

Companies claim that the independence of the ICC is respected and no external influence is permitted but there’s no clarity on how exactly this is achieved. Firms like Mahindra conduct orientation sessions and periodic refresher workshops to ensure ICC members are well-versed in sexual harassment and principles of natural justice. At Philips, members are drawn from various departments like legal, HR, IT and business. For any complaint pertaining to branch office or factory, the ICC will comprise of two members from site compliance redressal committee and two from core compliance redressal committee. To its credit, Vodafone has an external woman lawyer in all its ICCs and to avoid conflict of interest, senior members of the organisation are included, preferably from a different function to ensure a fair hearing and decision-making process. ITC has a representative from an NGO or a lawyer with a background in gender issues in its ICCs.

There were a few suggestions to improve workplace safety for women. Dr Prince Augustin, EVP, Group Human Capital & Leadership Development, Mahindra & Mahindra Ltd, mooted the idea of a certificate equivalent to a character score for people leaving the organisation ‘so that there is restraint on recurrence of such behaviour and people know that character score is a form of behaviour rating and therefore would refrain from behaviours which are not appropriate.’ While it is worth considering, it can be abused as a tool against those who choose to quit the company or by managers who hold grudges against the person. Perhaps, such a certificate should only be used for convicted offenders who aren’t forced out of the organisation (but get less severe punishment).

Other suggestions were quite generic – clear communication and awareness trainings at all levels, demonstrating the actual application of such policies, and dealing with cases in a fair and unbiased manner. Philips reiterated the importance of creating a safe working environment for women not just at workplaces but also at home and in public places, while giving women the confidence that their identity, image and dignity will be protected and the right remedial actions will be taken. Vodafone made the oft-ignored point that women need to be made aware of their legal options as many of them are unsure the whys and wheres of filing such complaints. Aptech echoed this, suggesting that regular awareness sessions should be organised to drive home the point to women employees that the organisation will be supportive should they decide to seek legal remedies. Equally important is their assertion that top leaders need to show the way in adopting and advocating a no-tolerance approach to sexual harassment. This might sound obvious but it is incredible how often it gets overlooked by top management.

Companies referred to steps like safe company transport for women employees and flexible options during business travel (car bookings, choice of flight timings, etc.) in fostering a safer work environment. Policies that encourage work from home, flexi-working, generous maternity and paternity benefits, etc., can also help in reducing instances of harassment. Vodafone mentioned ‘continuous measures for removing unconscious biases amongst employees.’ While this is possibly one of the most critical steps that a company can take to ensure a workplace free of harassment, we are not sure of the finer details of this kind of measures. Nestle has already initiated ‘unconscious bias’ sessions for its blue-collar employees in factories, which has helped increase awareness about how influential and pervasive gendered discrimination and stereotypes can be. While laudable, sexism transcends class and Nestle would do well to extend this programme to all its employees.

#MeToo has been lauded for encouraging women and men to openly discuss their views and experiences when it comes to sexual harassment. Its impact in making men more aware, responsible and sensitive towards women and their safety has also been acknowledged.

CB view
As this OECD report explains, ‘Workplace sexual harassment presents both a human rights challenge and an economic cost. Victims of sexual harassment suffer negative psychological and physical health consequences, which lowers workplace productivity and contributes to employee turnover, absenteeism, loss of managerial time to investigate complaints, and legal expenses.’

In November of last year, the ministry of women and child development launched a portal to help women lodge complaints online about sexual harassment at work, both for public and private sectors. The online complaint management system called SHe-box (sexual harassment electronic box) will be hosted on the website of the ministry and a cell will be appointed to look into every complaint filed online and share it with the concerned organisation’s ICC. While in principle it sounds like a good initiative, implementation will be key. The cell will need to hold the organisations accountable for disposal of the cases and implementation of the recommendations. Non-compliance and slow handling should result in reprimands and repeat offenders penalised. Well-begun is only half done and good intentions don’t necessarily lead to good results.

Along with mandatory reporting of the number of sexual harassment cases and their status (open/disposed of), the actual outcome of the cases should also be disclosed – whether the alleged harasser was asked to leave the organisation, moved to another team, stripped off his job position and demoted, fined, asked to go through mandatory training again, and/or if there was no material change. This will provide a good understanding to their employees, civil society and the government of how the law is being used and implemented and what can be improved. Mere disposal of cases is not enough; if the guilty are not being made to pay a price and if all they get is a stern warning, then fewer women will be encouraged to use this particular recourse. While not all types of harassment merit the same kind of punishment, it should be kept in mind that even seemingly harmless acts like sending flirtatious texts can negatively affect women and their right to a safe, stress-free work environment. All acts of harassment are unwelcome and should have no place in our society. Companies would do well to teach their employees and managers that being a professional means being respectful of each other’s space – physical, personal and virtual.

Right now the biggest problem is under-reporting. Despite the many claims of corporates that they are invested in addressing this problem, the number of cases reported indicate otherwise. While part of it can be attributed to the fact that ours is still a regressive, sexist society, companies need to take a fair share of the blame for failing to create a workplace culture that assures women of their support. Following the Act’s guidelines is the basic minimum (that very few companies have actually implemented is a major cause for concern) but that is simply not enough. Starting with the CxO-level management, the message should be sent loud and clear that sexual harassment will not be tolerated in any shape or form and offenders will be held liable. Managers should be responsible and accountable for the safety of all the women employees in their teams. They need to create the right climate so that women are comfortable sharing even minor transgressions that can devolve into harassment rapidly and other red flags, so that a potential harassing act can be averted.

Volunteering information on the cases that have been reported whilst maintaining confidentiality of the victim and devising concrete, measurable steps to combat sexual harassment (for example, annual or semi-annual surveys, which guarantee full anonymity, to gauge the awareness levels of all employees and the views of women, in particular on gender-related matters, and short- and long-term plans to take action on the survey results), ensuring full support to the aggrieved woman, and providing both monetary and non-pecuniary compensation in case of a conviction are some basic measures that need to be put in place and followed rigorously.

Of course, it will be unfair to expect corporates to do all the legwork on this issue. As a 2014 report by the European Agency for Fundamental Rights pointed out, ‘The different level of acknowledgement of sexual harassment in national legislation and its prioritisation in specific policies and political debates might be reflected in women’s overall level of awareness of sexual harassment as a fundamental rights abuse, and their disclosure of such experiences.’ The 2013 Act was a good starting point but as explored in the first part of this series, it has its fair share of drawbacks that need to be urgently addressed by the government. Making this issue a national priority and putting systems and redressal mechanisms that actually work will go a long way in instilling confidence in women to report their multiple abuses.

There are enough and more examples from countries who are serious in tackling this issue. Several countries in the EU have expanded the definition of sexual harassment, enhanced maximum penalties (France), better defined employer obligations (Iceland, Korea, Mexico and Slovenia), and/or focused on harassment in particular industries or sectors (higher education in Israel). Governments have also carried out awareness campaigns or published guidelines to workers and employers about sexual harassment, ways to prevent it, legal rights for victims, and employer obligations. Similar campaigns need to happen in India with active participation from corporates.

A word on corporate participation
MeToo might be the seismic movement of our times, both in terms of its social and cultural impact but there seems to be little more than tepid enthusiasm from corporate India. CB’s detailed questionnaire to companies on sexual harassment was met with stony silence from most. One assumes that if, as they claim in their annual reports, these companies really do accord sexual harassment the seriousness and importance that it deserves, they will be more than willing to share their views on combating this pandemic that has taken new urgency in the light of MeToo. If, however, their paeans to gender equality and safe working spaces for women are mere lip service, then it would make sense for them to excuse, evade and ignore.

Strange explanations were given to refuse participation: Accor’s spokesperson was on leave; ICICI declining to participate because Chanda Kochhar was busy and only the CEO was allowed to speak on such matters. Microsoft simply said no. Canon and Nestle provided a statement but had no responses to our specific questions. H&M sent us a brief statement wherein they reiterated their ‘zero tolerance for any behaviour that is not in line with their global social policies’, and that all requirements of the 2013 Act were followed (lest we assumed otherwise). A detailed list of companies who failed to respond to our questions is provided at the end.

Companies need to remember that doing the right thing is not a PR/branding exercise and that combating sexual harassment is not just the right thing to do, it is also a matter of universal human rights.

Companies that did not respond to the questionnaire: ICICI, Reliance Industries, HUL, SBI Life, SBI, Bharti, IndusInd, Honeywell, Reckitt Benckiser, GAIL, Jubilant Life Sciences, MAC, Hinduja ventures, Piramal, Tata Tea, TCS, Avantha Group, Microsoft, P&G, Pepsi, HCL, Biocon, Britannia, Axis Bank, Bank of America-Merill Lynch, Accenture, SAP, Google, Citi, HP, Kotak, IBM, Wipro, Dr Reddy’s, Nokia, Hyundai, Johnson Tiles, Interel group, IHG, FRHI.