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Sexual Harassment At Workplace

There must be a clearly articulated policy on the ‘consequences of infractions’ that cut across hierarchies and genders including appropriate penalties for false allegations, post facto changes of perception from ‘consensual’ to ‘coerced’ and any attempt to blackmail. The penalties may range from a simple warning to a reprimand to termination

Photo Credit : Ritesh Sharma


Following the emergence of the sordid details of what the famous Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein did, a whole lot of similar stories have come tumbling out. Predictably there’s huge outrage, anger and perfectly understandable disgust that followed on social media.

As one who’s spent a long time working in four countries across three continents, I can safely say the problem of sexual harassment is ubiquitous cutting across nationalities and cultures.  Reasons are partly – not entirely, I emphasize - biological; almost every male with normal levels of testosterone and heterosexual proclivities secretly fantasizes those actions, even envying those that are able to ‘get it’. Almost all brag and hugely exaggerate their ‘conquests’ in the company of buddies – as Donald Trump, the candidate did and dismissed it as ‘locker room talk’. Reason some stick to the scrupulously straight and narrow has often less to do with ethics and morality or respect for women; for most it’s a lack of opportunity and plain timidity. Jimmy Carter, the 93-year-old Nobel Prize winner and the 39th US American president candidly summed this up eloquently in his ‘confession’ about having committed 'adultery in my heart - although never in body'.

Being a man I’ll never fully or correctly understand how affected women truly feel about sexual harassment; distasteful and to be firmly resisted no matter what the consequences? put up with for the sake of career advancement or protection? or feel revolted and shamed but stay quiet for fear of embarrassment?

There’s obviously no research to create a pie chart of different perceptions but I suspect most of those trending on social media belong to one of the three. I’d also like to clear up a common misconception: this is not limited to show business, the media and the corporate world. It is universal. And unacceptable. It happens in schools, universities, hospitals, nonprofits, government offices, ad agencies, armed forces, the White House … just about everywhere except perhaps in a cloistered convent.

Inappropriate, non-consensual sexual behavior is essentially predicated on three factors. First, the ‘power gap’ between the perpetrator and the victim – how dominant (in terms of status, wealth, influence and ability to help or harm) the former is, and how insecure or vulnerable is the victim.  Second, the ‘risk of exposure’ that includes believability of accusations and charges if leveled, and finally the ‘consequences’ of exposure – not just for the perpetrator but also the victim.

Strangely, such behavior and actions never remain a secret. Internal grapevine, watercooler chitchat, buddy groups that bond over a beer or coffee and many such informal networks usually know ‘who’s doing what’. Problem is this rarely reaches top management until the $#%& hits the fan. Good news, as they say travels upwards, bad news stay at the bottom. Not always, but occasionally a Whistleblower, a Victim who can’t keep it bottled up any longer, a disgruntled employee…lets it all out. The initial reaction of the perpetrator (and the management) is to claim the moral high ground, stoutly deny and label it a conspiracy. And when that doesn’t work, make a quiet off-line settlement that often runs into large sums of money.

But if it is unacceptable, how do we stop it? I suggest a three step roadmap:

i) Clearly draw and widely publicize (internally) the ‘red lines’. What is and what is not acceptable. These vary not just from one organization to another but also across cultural divides. And they are never static which means they must be periodically reviewed and updated.  Not many can be written down and some are governed by convention and custom. But in every organization every person must know what these are. Clearly and unambiguously.

ii) Lay down clearly defined and (again, internally) well publicized ‘rules of engagement’. Every unacceptable overture, action, language – both verbal and nonverbal - or solicitation must be firmly but politely resisted and refused – on the spot. And if that doesn’t help, those must be reported via specified ‘avenues of appeal and redress’. It must be emphasized ‘non reporting’ within a specified timeframe – say a week - would be construed as ‘complicity’.

A common fallacy is to have a formally stated ‘Whistleblower Policy’, get it approved by the Board and designate the HR Department as the arbiter. This is just whistling in the dark. Pure eyewash; doesn’t work. There must be a designated external ‘Go To’ person – an Ombudsman - of unimpeachable integrity, genuine sensitivity and total credibility; one that’s perceived as ‘not beholden’ to the management with no fear nor expecting any favor. A person with utmost discretion, who exudes ‘Trust’. And has an email address not linked to the organization’s server. Gender is immaterial.

iii) Finally, there must be a clearly articulated policy on the ‘consequences of infractions’ that cut across hierarchies and genders including appropriate penalties for false allegations, post facto changes of perception from ‘consensual’ to ‘coerced’ and any attempt to blackmail. The penalties may range from a simple warning to a reprimand to termination.

Not easy to walk the talk but perhaps necessary in this age of social media and trials by public perceptions.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

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sexual harassment donald trump Harvey Weinstein workplace

K. Satish

The author is a New York-based independent marketing consultant

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