harassment in workplace - blog by vani kola

Why are we still talking about sexual harassment in the workplace in the 21st century?

Every now and then, sexual harassment in workplace accounts take the media by storm, but these accounts are not one-offs. The findings of the The Elephant in the Valley survey found that 60% of 200+ women in tech surveyed, experienced unwanted sexual advances in Silicon Valley. Uber engineer Susan Fowler’s case of harassment in the workplace adds evidence to the broader pattern of sexual harassment that exists in workplaces around the world. It is baffling that even in highly developed countries where education, technology and governments have allowed women and men to excel, if not equally but to a great extent, gender inequality still exists in the workplace.

What does harassment in the workplace mean?

In the Indian context, the challenges women face are inextricably linked to the social norms and history specific to the country. Sexual harassment is not a new problem and was the primary campaign for women’s movements in the 1980–1990s. The notion that women are the “weaker sex” contributes to the unconscious or conscious gender bias about their competence in the workplace, which sometimes could trigger jokes, comments and sexual advances. It is interesting to note that, nearly 50 per cent of women in technology in India, leave the employment pipeline at the junior to mid-level.

It is also worrying that sexual harassment in the workplace is often underreported. Earlier this year, in a survey by the Indian National Bar Association (INBA), of the 6,047 participants (both male and female) surveyed, 38% had faced harassment at the workplace and 69% of them did not complain about it.

This is understandable, as we often lack the confidence in the organisation to handle such issues comprehensively and fear retaliation. It is also a matter where one can be easily judged by the broader community and last but not least it might lead to missing out on future promotions or eventually being forced to quit the company.

Harassment in the workplace takes many forms, it could be (a) deliberate, where the person is aware that he/she is making the other person uncomfortable or (b) when there is a disconnect or lack of sensitivity on what constitutes harassment.

For instance, a very personal compliment to a woman on her clothes or hair might be completely ok in one cultural setting but inappropriate in another. In the same way, a peck on the cheek might be an acceptable way of greeting each other in some countries but it might not work in the Indian context. Social norms many times dictate what may or may not constitute harassment.

Data is proof that no company, a startup or an MNC in San Francisco or Bengaluru, is immune to this problem. There is no denying that even today, in several businesses locker room banter still exists, a culture of men bragging prevails and is generally categorised as “It’s just how guys talk. It doesn’t mean anything. This is all in good fun!” This needs to change…

Solution Oriented Thinking

In the case of early-stage startups, the situation is definitely more sensitive. With dozens of competing priorities — fundraising, hacking growth and fighting for survival, a sexual harassment policy is unlikely to be a high priority. Often, founders hire and promote friends and people similar to them, early company culture is likely to be informal and casual, which might be the best environment to foster innovation and hustle. It could well happen that this group of like-minded predominantly male members suddenly gain immense power, opportunity and wealth. And before long, they might feel like they are above the law!

These settings may create immunity to engage in “for fun” comments or unwanted propositions. In such environments, it is even more likely that women under-report harassment incidents fearing consequences in a close-knit startup community or disruption to the fast-paced work culture. And when reported, the founding team may choose not to fire or reprimand colleagues who are college friends and who might be more critical to the company than the victim.

In cases where founders or CEOs commit offences, it can be almost impossible for women to find justice. In the early days, there is simply no HR department, it all comes down to the moral fabric of the founding team. Founders and early employees eat together, work together or even live together. Early employees observe founders’ behaviour, taking behavioural cues from them. However, an intimate, laid-back or open culture is no excuse for harassment.

Most founders I know want to do the right thing, but what should they do to build a harassment-free culture? It is critical to first have clarity on what the “right thing is” and the integrity to stand up for it.

“A leader doesn’t just get the message across: he is the message.”

~ Warren Bennis

While workplace policies and regulations are a starting point, preventive policies and redressal mechanisms are put to the test when a crisis knocks on the door. And when these fail, the severe damage to business and reputation is often irreversible.

Lest we think these problems are limited to startups, I recall one incident when I was a younger professional, that made me very aware of how pervasive this problem is. The scandal surrounding Jack Welch, former CEO of GE, a respected leadership guru and Suzy Wetlaufer, ex-editor at Harvard Business Review (HBR) is the perfect example that questioned the bias in how a respected institution dealt with the crisis surrounding its star employee. Suzy Wetlaufer was the star at HBR those days, their best foot forward for influential interviews and articles with the top industry moguls. Wetlaufer’s interview-turned-romance with the married Welch cost HBR a lot as much as it impacted Jack Welch. The drama tested the ethical fabric of HBR and GE, demoralising and embarrassing the staff. When the affair was first reported, Suzy was not immediately let go, she just stepped down as editor despite compromising her journalistic integrity. At least six editors at HBR called for Wetlaufer’s resignation and eventually two staff editors quit in protest. Key learning from this example — organizations must be prepared to deal with such crises. Establish clear organisational guidelines and protocols, be vigilant and review these from time to time. Most importantly ensure there are enforcement mechanisms in place that are applicable to all and treat every offender the same way.

“Are we building a safe and comfortable environment for both men and women to thrive without bias and harassment?”

As an effective leader and founder, have you been involved and invested in developing the culture code of your organization — how often does respect for women feature on the list? How often do you ask the question?

In her book Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg provides an example of the parking situation at Google when she was pregnant with her first child in 2004. After struggling to find a parking spot before an important sales meeting, Sheryl approached Google founders and asked for pregnancy parking. They agreed immediately without having to be persuaded. Both Sheryl and Sergey wondered why this hadn’t occurred to them before. Sheryl was especially embarrassed that she only noticed this when it happened to her. So, why didn’t the other pregnant women at Google raise this? Was it about seniority or confidence? While this does not demonstrate harassment but it demonstrates the need for sensitivity and dialogue. Are we sensitive to our employees’ needs? Are we creating an atmosphere where our employees feel empowered to engage in dialogue?

Implementing the Solution

The Vishaka Guidelines introduced in 1997 now superseded by the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, legally requires Indian companies with over 10 employees to have policies against sexual harassment. Sadly, 36% of Indian companies and 25% of MNCs are not yet compliant with the act. I would be surprised to see how many startups are compliant with this.

As the founding team, a few things you can do or start doing to create a harassment-free environment:

#1 Clarity

On what constitutes harassment? Be very clear on what harassment means to you and your organisation. Draft a meaningful and actionable sexual harassment policy, not just one that ticks the boxes and ensure your company’s code of conduct ties into this policy. Founders could leverage the experience of their board members to draw up an effective policy. Set up an intuitive and practical redressal mechanism, and make it crystal clear — in case of a crisis, who do you go to, to file a report? Who will conduct the independent investigation? What is the role of the Internal Complaints Committee?

#2 Communication 

How will you introduce this topic to your organization? Is it useful to start with a survey to gauge the inherent biases people bring to work and share the results in an all-hands? Is this a survey you conduct and measure every quarter? As a founder always keep your eyes and ears open — observe team dynamics in meetings where diverse teams meet, allow time for water cooler conversations, make yourself approachable and keep lines of communication open. When an employee steps forward and voices his or her opinion about what he or she saw, heard or experienced, reward the initiative to speak up. Employees must feel empowered to speak up, which will happen when the founding teams lead by example.

#3 Crisis Management 

Just like large buildings have fire drills to ensure fire safety preparedness, as a founder you need to be prepared today for what might happen tomorrow. An organization is judged most harshly on its response in the handling of a sexual harassment claim. In case of a crisis, take each claim seriously and ensure it is investigated fairly and in consultation with the board who should be informed.

Again your organizational guidelines and protocol should clearly define this. Don’t hesitate to take outside help in conducting the investigation. Be empathetic with the affected employee — put yourself in the employee’s shoes, be sensitive to his or her needs and seek fairness on his or her behalf. Defensiveness should be replaced with transparency. Ensure to walk the talk when a crisis hits the doorstep, will you be ready to act on the principles you set out?

I strongly believe India’s technology ecosystem is young enough to be shaped into one where sexual harassment is a thing of the past — this is our opportunity to build the organizations of tomorrow, the right way…

There is a Vedic saying,

“Where women are worshiped, there the gods dwell.”

Nothing should stop us from adopting this into the startup context as well “Where women are respected, valued and given equal opportunities, companies will excel, thrive and attract the best talent”.

Young women often ask me about managing work-life balance, breaking glass ceilings, and dealing with workplace harassment. At home, my two daughters frequently discuss their gender-based experiences, struggles of being strong outspoken women and challenges in navigating complex situations. These discussions have made me more reflective than ever before.

Until a decade ago, I thought and claimed I have never faced harassment. But that is probably not true; in retrospect what might be true is that I probably swept these under the carpet subconsciously. Based on my experiences I can highlight three incidents that I did not pay as much attention to because I believed I needed to accept some things I personally couldn’t change…

#1 Travelling in the public bus system from the age of 10–21

Needless to say, every woman has had her share of unwanted advances on a bus. During my time, and I believe even today, the problem women face is the inability to speak up and the fear of calling attention to themselves when something happens. But this is exactly why young women are preyed upon and bystanders rarely ever come to the rescue. Like me, many women get through this every day and unfortunately, few end up paying a very high price. Public safety is certainly not taken for granted by most Indian women. But the question is — is this the legacy and society we want for our children?

#2 Competence questions

I remember when I closed a big sales deal at work, I was thrilled and called my office to share the news. One of my colleagues said, “Wow what did you do to win this, sleep with the client?” Though said in jest, I did not have a great comeback to express how disheartened that comment made me feel. These comments usually come from the person’s insensitivity and maybe even deep-seated bias about the competence of women. And like many of my predecessors, my solution was to continue working hard, putting in the hours and believing no one thought less of me because I am a woman.

#3 Sexual Harassment Crisis at Work

An office affair became a harassment crisis. After an investigation, the solution suggested was, the male employee, a Senior employee and critical to the company, be simply warned, and the woman, an executive assistant i.e. less critical, be let go. The logic presented — it was best to protect the company’s interest and someone even said, “Men always chase skirts, this woman probably has herself to blame”! I ended up firing both employees because this was a clear violation of our HR policies and not a popularity contest. Not everyone supported my decision. Gender-based consequences are different for both men and women in organizations unless the leadership is vigilant about the choices it makes and the examples it sets.

These examples are not about direct harassment but are situational where one needs to take a stand and do the right thing. But it is easier said than done, when I put myself in the shoes of younger women and men today and play out the same situations in my head, they are likely to be more vulnerable, or less leveraged in their careers currently to speak up.

We need to change that, and I believe that can happen when we create awareness and initiate a dialogue on these issues. We need to focus our efforts on building a culture of empowerment in the startup ecosystem to ensure the next generation of Indian companies is built on a sound foundation.

Acknowledging Vedika Jain, a contributor to this article.

Note — Kalaari is an investor in YourStory. Kalaari or Kstart are not investors in any other startups that have been mentioned above.

Disclaimer: It is strictly an independent opinion of the writer, not representative of Kstart or Kalaari.