Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Unravelling POSH Law: Safeguarding workplace dignity and respect

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For a long time, sexual harassment was considered to be next to impossible to stamp out — “Sexual harassment is like God, it’s everywhere.” This, however, over time, has been proven untrue. While it hasn’t yet been stamped out, measures have been put in place to curb its frequency.
Ten years ago, following a path-breaking Supreme Court judgement, the Indian Parliament, in an interesting experiment, passed a law that allowed for women to file complaints of sexual harassment with a committee (then called the Internal Complaints Committee or the ICC) comprising both company employees and an external member. While such committees were commonplace in organizations (HR & Disciplinary Committees), for the first time, such a committee had statutory backing with specific powers (that of a civil court) and a mandate to safeguard women from sexual harassment at the workplace and to provide them with a redressal mechanism. The rationale was that women would not have to go through the conventional and arduous judicial system and could seek justice within their organization itself. With a directive to maintain confidentiality, it appeared that the PoSH Law (Protection of Women from Sexual Harassment Act, 2013) had checked all the right boxes.
The mandate of the Law for employers was quite simple — constitute an Internal Committee (IC as it is now called), create awareness amongst employees, and provide all necessary support to the IC to carry out its functions, including training and skilling as well as the implementation of its recommendations. Employees, in turn, were provided with a mechanism which ensured confidentiality, whether one was filing a complaint or was a respondent in one.
In the early years of the PoSH Law, management tended to pack the ICs with either malleable employees or those who were senior but simply didn’t have the time and bandwidth to focus on the cases. This led to situations where the employees started losing faith in the system, which, in turn, had other adverse consequences, including employee attrition and a negative impact on the brand.  Over the years, employers saw the value in complying with the law, in letter and spirit.
When I look at the events as they unfolded over the years, the #MeToo movement was one that made a tremendous impact in highlighting the plight of women who had to suffer sexual harassment at the workplace. Here in India, corporates felt the repercussions of the movement and the compelling need to take PoSH compliance more seriously. Governments also started monitoring compliance through the District Officers, thus giving a much-needed impetus to the Law. The other pivotal moment was, of course, the COVID-induced pandemic. While the definition of workplace was always broader than just the physical office, the pandemic reinforced the understanding that workplaces extended to far beyond just the office space, to include virtual workplaces.
An interesting aspect that has now started to make a change in the corporate approach to the issue is the multitude of internal and external surveys conducted that assess employee satisfaction. Getting their organisation placed at the top became a matter of prestige for every CHRO worth their salt. That’s when workplace culture, safety, diversity, inclusion and belonging started to become priorities. To demonstrate that an organization had zero tolerance for sexual harassment at the workplace, they also needed to create the right culture — a Culture of Respect and Compliance. With global best practices seeping into India Inc., these became recurring discussions at the board and shareholder level.
Slowly but surely, there was a shift in the approach towards PoSH. No longer was it viewed through the narrow prism of compliance — organisations started taking a much broader view. The focus now is on creating the right culture at the workplace, one that emphasizes dignity and respect, while highlighting the importance of compliance with corporate policies as well as the law of the land. Training on Diversity, Equity & Inclusion, Code of Conduct, core values of the organisation, etc., all started to attain importance in CXO conversations. The approach to preventing sexual harassment at the workplace had just taken a more holistic hue.
As we celebrate the 10th year of this unique experiment called the PoSH Law, it’s evident that while the law has been largely successful in creating awareness around the menace of sexual harassment, lots more needs to be done in the next decade. The government needs to focus on implementation and compliance; employees must demand greater accountability from their management for safer workplaces and vote with their feet. The Law also needs some tweaking to improve its effectiveness, but that’s a discussion for another day.
After all, while God may be omnipresent, sexual harassment need not be, and can be significantly mitigated, if not eliminated, through awareness, a focus on a Culture of Compliance and a robust regulatory framework.

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