How companies can address sexual harassment at the work place

Setting up an internal committee, hiring a third-party investigator and applying modern technology to investigate can help companies resolve complaints of sexual harassment

Updated: Jun 9, 2015 07:54:54 AM UTC

Image: Shutterstock

There was an awkward silence in the corridor after a conversation in the adjacent cabin was overheard. The three colleagues were enjoying their evening tea by the water cooler, when they heard a feeble cry from within the cabin. Curiosity got the better of them, and after a few moments of eavesdropping, they were aghast at what they heard. Their boss was convincing a young intern to visit him over the weekend. It is a frame you would expect to see only in a movie; however, it is a reality that subtly surrounds us.

Organisations have been charting their growth in multiple spheres, including in gender diversity. There is much that can be said about the ground covered on this front as women have broken out of their shells and led companies into new business dimensions. There is, however, an element which haunts every organisation and conjures up uneasiness even in the most honed environments—the under evaluated and often ignored evil: sexual harassment.

Coming to terms with reality In the recent past, managements have begun to realise the potential impediment that their brands could face if a sexual harassment case goes public. There has, therefore, emerged an enhanced sense of responsibility, emanating from the market, making acknowledgement of the subject more pervasive. The initial consciousness has prompted companies to implement a structured approach to combat such instances, in a sensitive and unbiased manner.

A challenging task
The initial awkwardness apart, there are a few concrete challenges which set these investigations apart. Unlike other investigations, companies have a challenging time unearthing the truth as both parties usually claim innocence and it is up to the company to verify the facts. There is also the popular perception that it is impossible to verify the credibility of the claim, apart from taking the complainants word for it. A classic case of ‘he said’ versus ‘she said’.

Moreover, identifying a concrete trail is a gruelling task. Given that it is most likely a high figure who has been accused, it is unlikely that witnesses will reveal any misappropriate instances, for the fear of being victimised at a later stage. These deterrents and the Prevention of Sexual Harassment Act, 2013 need to be viewed in a more focussed and specialised way, making it necessary to constitute an Internal Complaints Committee (ICC)) that is adept at gathering the right information from the parties involved.

The most important metric in arriving at an appropriate resolution is determining the facts from perception. The human mind is biased by nature and this inherent inclination can mislead investigators, who will be prone to bias themselves, even more so if members of the ICC have any personal, or professional, relationship with either party. This influence must be eliminated and that is possible if a third-party investigator, who has the required expertise without the complexities of partiality, is engaged.

Bring in technology to tackle technicalities
Technology is an enabler and provides a subjective view through the presentation of facts. It holds tremendous potential, especially in cases such as these, as it is possible to draw a timeline around the same and can help establish inconsistencies in the matter revealed from the individuals in question. There may some credible leads such as CCTV footage, electronic data such as emails, chats or text messages on the phone, which can be accessed. It is imperative for the ICC to be familiar with these technologies for the organisation to develop a response framework.

While the establishment of an ICC which has the autonomy and credibility to take on such cases is a step in the right direction, there is a lot of ground to cover to ensure responsible behaviour. An organisation needs to develop a public ‘no-nonsense’ perception, which would help this attitude transcend throughout the workforce. We no longer live in an era that accepts awkward silence, let the voice of a collective conscience rise.

- By Arpinder Singh, Partner and National Leader, Fraud Investigation & Dispute Services, EY

The thoughts and opinions shared here are of the author.

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