Tips for MBA freshers: Dealing with workplace harassment

work placeIt’s a story we’ve heard many times, of a woman being bothered by the persistent interest that a male colleague (sometimes even the boss) is taking in her. He may be direct about his intentions, passing lewd comments, issuing invites for dinner or coffee or flooding her with text messages or he may bother her in other ways, touching her ‘accidentally’ or setting up situations in which she is left alone with him, and so on.

Either way, she is left feeling helpless and angry. Confronting the perpetrator of this harassment may result in job loss, and not doing anything about it means a daily struggle of fending him off.

So what to do? This is a pressing question especially today when more women are entering the workplace and are faced with this scenario regularly. A November 2010 survey of 600 women employees in the information technology and outsourcing industry found that 88 per cent of them had faced some form of sexual harassment at work. In two-thirds of the incidents, the perpetrator was a superior at work, according to the survey conducted by the Centre for Transforming India, a Delhi-based non-profit organization.

Workplace harassment and office bullying are all too common in this day and age therefor every woman in the workplace needs to equip herself with information about what she can do if she is being harassed.

It’s important to pay heed to any sense of discomfort you may feel during your interactions with male colleagues and confront the problem directly.

As an experienced HR professional, I have a fair idea of what you should do to avoid/ report such issues. Here’s what to do to alleviate harassment or bullying in the workplace:

  1. Communicate your disapproval: If you can avoid the colleague who makes you uncomfortable, do so. If you have to work in close proximity to him, avoid being alone with him. Tell him to stop his specific behavior. If he stands too close, you can say: Can you stand away please, because such closeness makes me very uncomfortable. Or, if he touches you, say: Can you please avoid putting your hand on my shoulder because that makes me uncomfortable. ‘If the person has sent you a joke through an email or SMS, reply through email or SMS when asking him to stop,’
  2. Write It Down: Keep a detailed journal of what occurred with as many details as possible. If your colleague isn’t getting the message, prepare to report him. Gather evidence to substantiate your claims. Note down the date, time and details of each incident. Save any emails or text messages that contain inappropriate language. Try to use your mobile phone recorder to discreetly record his remarks.
  3. List Witnesses: If there are witnesses, compile their names and share the situation with a colleague you trust in the office. She may be able to keep a watchful eye on the situation. But be picky about who you share this information with, and ensure that your confidante is trustworthy. A senior colleague or mentor who carries more weight in the organization would be ideal.
  4. Seek Help: Go to the supervisor, if necessary. Make the complaint in writing and keep a copy. Remember, an oral complaint can be hushed up. Often women don’t report sexual harassment for fear they might lose their jobs, but unless you are willing to take action, your problem will persist.
  5. Do not rise to the occasion: Choose not to react to the bullying or harassing behavior. (Quite often, bullying is power through aggression).
  6. Use Company Resources: Use your company’s resources, such as a harassment advisor, mediator or employee assistance program (EAP), if necessary. Many EAP programs offer you a choice of talking to someone by phone or in person, and possibly the opportunity to seek assistance outside of your community.
  7. Identify Workplace Stressors: Take a work stress inventory to identify your sources of stress, your triggers and your current coping mechanisms.
  8. Change Negative Thoughts: Learn to identify and change your “mind maps” (thoughts swirling in your mind) in such a situation and remind yourself this stressful situation is temporary. You CAN transform negative thoughts and energy into positive thoughts and positive energy.
  9. Learn to Relax: Teach your body to relax with “keeping well” resources: deep breathing, progressive relaxation, mindfulness, guided imagery and relaxing music.
  10. Create a plan B: Leaving your job should be your last resort. But before you take this step, it’s best to start looking for another job. Leaving without an option may result in a feeling of powerlessness.


A look at the law

In India ‘The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2012’ is an act “to provide protection against sexual harassment of women at workplace and for the prevention and redressal of complaints of sexual harassment.”

The brutal gang rape of a social worker in Rajasthan in 1997 brought to the attention of the Supreme Court of India, the absence of domestic law occupying the field, to formulate effective measures to check the evil of sexual harassment of working women at all work places.  This resulted in India finally enacting its law on prevention of sexual harassment against female employees at the workplace.

Implied or explicit promise of preferential treatment in employment, Implied or explicit threat of detrimental treatment in employment or Implied or explicit threat about her present or future employment status Interferes with work or creates an intimidating/hostile/offensive work environment. Humiliating treatment likely to affect her health and safety.

India Inc has a lot of catching up to do when it comes to sensitizing employees to gender issues at the workplace, HR experts have said, amid increasingly frequent reports of sexual harassment charges in the country. Employers need to have a clear and written policy that sexual harassment is misconduct and will result in dismissal. The message that it will not be tolerated should be sent out loud and clear. Sensitization programs at the workplace to put norms of acceptable behavior in place are necessary and prompt action must be taken against the perpetrator.

Contributed by Shilpa Verma Kansal ( Class of 2008, IBS GURGAON )

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