Ethics and Sexual Harassment at Workplace

Sexual harassment at workplace though has existed from time immemorial, has acquired distinct proportions in the existing milieu. From debates and discussions in the parliament to judicial pronouncements at the apex courts and from training in corporate houses to household dinners, it has become a contested terrain of perspectives. While there has been an overarching agreement over its violative nature, disagreements have emerged over what constitutes intervention into the sexual wholeness of an individual. Interestingly, sexual harassment principally constitutes a violation of the ethical code of conduct that all workplace environments seek to promote and uphold.  It is thus that it impinges on our rationality so stringently.

At the ethical domain, sexual harassment is a breach of humanity, trust, respect, coexistence, and workplace norms of commitment and up righteousness. An improper behavior towards a colleague is defying of the belief system and values that ought to guide the conduct of an individual at work. It not only negatively affects the psyche of the distressed but also acts as a hindrance to effective working of the entire workplace. In the words of philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, such a state of existence without fundamental values of life would make the lives of men solitary, nasty and brutish where there is no mutual trust and community is characterized by continuous strife.

The key contention with Sexual harassment is that while on an individual level, it breaches the dignity of an individual man/woman, on a communitarian level it is a blot that undermines the quality of working life, jeopardizes the well-being of women and men, undermines gender equality and imposes costs on firms and organizations. The International Labour Organization, most succinctly laid down that workplace sexual harassment is a barrier towards its primary goal of promoting decent working conditions for all workers. This raises a quintessential question: what constitutes this ‘unnoticed/ unseen’ harassment? In Indian jurisprudence history, the most stellar instance that re-defined the very understanding of sexual harassment was Vishakha v/s State of Rajasthan case.

According to judicial pronouncements and its enlightened interpretation, Sexual harassment in the workplace refers to “an verbal or physical act with a sexual nature, performed in recruitment or in the workplace by a boss, manager, employee, client or customer of a working unit, that is unwelcomed by the person receiving it and has caused the person to feel violated, insulted, and being in an unbearable hostile environment.” The verbal or physical acts with a sexual nature include: (i) joking or teasing with a sexual nature; (ii) continuous invitation to dinner or date despite rejection; (iii) intentional dissemination of hearsay with a sexual nature; (iv) enquiring for or sharing sexual experience; (v) spreading and displaying a nude or image with apparent sexual contents; (vi) request for sexual intercourse; (vii) unnecessary physical contact; (viii) forced sexual intercourse, etc.

There were difficulties in defining what constitutes to a workplace? Workplace covers “any place under the direct or indirect control of the employer that an employee needs to be present or go to in order to carry out work.” It includes office and other locations where the job responsibilities are undertaken, such as offices of clients, destinations of business trips, venues of business lunch/dinner, business branches, homes of clients, etc. and also the appropriate extension of the workplace, such as excursion, social activities, staff gathering after work that are organized by the company.

Clearly then, sexual harassment at workplace constitutes a classic case of Occupational sexism. While both men and women can be the aggrieved parties, given the historical and continued imbalance of power, where men as a class are privileged over women as a class, an important, but often overlooked, part of the term is that sexism is prejudice plus power. Thus, feminists reject the notion that women can be sexist towards men because women lack the institutional power that men have.

With growing cases being reported, it became imperative for workplace environments to find remedies. After meticulous brain storming, it was realized that effective deterrence of sexual harassment is inescapable. Further a grievance redressal mechanism was warranted that was characterized by a strong and broadly promulgated statement of policy; a grievance procedure that preserves confidentiality and protects both the complainant and the alleged perpetrator from retaliation, offers alternative channels of communication in the event that the first-line supervisor is the alleged perpetrator, provides specially trained personnel who can help the employee determine if there has been harassment and ensures that the complaint will be resolved equitably for all parties involved; a clear indication of the consequences for non-compliance; a training exercise designed to clarify behavior included in sexual harassment and to develop skills for coping with it, with special attention to the sensibilities inherent in a multicultural environment; a period review process to ensure that the policy is effectively setting the stage for a non-discriminatory work environment; and an unequivocal indication from top management that sexual harassment will not be tolerated in any form.

However, despite a plethora of perspectives and the whole gamut of laws and provisions, sexual harassment at workplace continues to remain a reality. The purpose of this blog is to push our thought process to seek answers to pertinent questions like: are only women the victims? What are the entitlements of the aggrieved? Has the law become a garb for women to further their retaliatory impulses? What are the ethics that are at stake? What are the impediments in the realization of these universally cherished values? These are some questions we all need to find answers to if the ethic of gender equality enshrined in our constitution has to be realized.

-By Khushboo Srivastava

Programme Associate, FRNV

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