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Who is a “woman employed at a senior level” and other questions about the workplace sexual harassment committee

Recently I met a friend, the MD of a small manufacturing unit that specialises in aviation technology. His Human Resources team faced an all-too-common dilemma. Of the approximately 1,000 employees on the company’s payroll, about 750 are women. To formulate an Internal Committee (“IC”) under Section 4 of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, known commonly as a “sexual harassment committee”, it is necessary to appoint as the Presiding Officer, a “woman employed at a senior level”.

“Woman employed at a senior level”

Now, if duration of employment with the organisation were the basis for determining seniority, then the most senior female employee would be my friend’s 30-year-old PA who joined the organisation one month after its incorporation, ten years ago. On the other hand, if the age of an employee is the determining factor, then the senior most female employee would be a 48-year old worker who joined the company two years ago when the company subsumed a smaller manufacturing unit.

Yet another factor to consider in the seniority debate is that of designation. In the public sector, the general rule of seniority recognises that a prior appointment supersedes a subsequent appointment in seniority. For instance, a person appointed to a post on January 1, 2010 will be considered senior to a person appointed to the same or similar post on November 1, 2010, when it is time to evaluate performance in view of promotions. This phenomenon is widely prevalent in the private sector as well, and therefore, identifying a “senior level” female employee to preside over an IC is a tricky task.

Ever since India enacted a law in 2013 to protect women from sexual harassment, organisations of various types have had reason to seek clarifications such as this one, about the implementation of the law. My friend’s manufacturing unit, like several small organisations, was willing to put in the effort to formulate a just and efficient system.

The 2013 Act requires that the Presiding Officer of the internal committee to enquire into complaints of sexual harassment should be a “woman employed at a senior level”. Photo courtesy: Pixabay

So then, which is the best way to identify the leading voice in this most critical and sensitive grievance redress process? Presuming that the organisation belongs to the private sector, it is best to identify presiding officers from amongst female employees who have been with the organisation for an extended period but who also demonstrate leadership skills and a good understanding of human behavior. Seniority, in this case, should be used as a yardstick to assess experience in addressing sensitive matters, (not necessarily those of sexual harassment).

“Committed to the cause of women”

Apart from the Presiding Officer, a complete IC needs at least two other employees appointed as members, and they should be “preferably committed to the cause of women or who have had experience in social work or have legal knowledge”. While this an admirable attempt to infuse the entire redress mechanism with empathy and an even temper, it is a big ask.

For starters, not every company has enough female employees on its payroll, let alone female employees who can take on the additional mandate of IC matters. It is also incorrect to presume that female employees are already empathetic to the cause of women or are well versed with law and the nuances of addressing workplace issues.

Open and transparent appointment

There are a few other subtleties to consider. There is no worker’s union at my friend’s company but in industries where there are workers’ unions, it is important to involve them in the decision-making process to ensure a philosophical alignment across the organisation’s workforce with anti-sexual harassment policies.

Almost all companies nominate members to the IC through internal discussions within the leadership. Those being nominated to such positions often have little say in the matter of their appointment.

While senior employees often bring extensive experience and maturity to the table, dealing with cases of sexual harassment can still take a toll. Adjudicating bitter disputes, interviewing witnesses, and listening to disturbing fact situations is unpleasant and can affect the emotional and mental well-being of the IC members. It is vital that they are well aware of the functions they need to carry out before they agree to take on these responsibilities.

The process of constituting an IC should be a transparent and open one. It is best to identify a pool of persons who fulfill the criteria of eligibility and then, have a conversation with them to outline the duties and responsibilities expected of their membership. It is important to seek their informed consent.

Members to the IC also need to be aware of the timelines involved in addressing complaints so that they can manage their primary duties. Membership involves additional work but the law does not permit any additional remuneration for these increased duties. Not surprisingly, sexual harassment committee members often feel “put upon” when asked to juggle primary duties at the workplace and pressing timelines while resolving complaints. Employers should therefore, acknowledge the work that is done by IC members.

The law only requires employers to support and assist these sexual harassment committees in the discharge of their duties. But good corporate governance requires organisations to acknowledge the contribution of IC members and provide support to them individually, should they need it, to better fulfill their duties.

The image at the top of this post, contains the Amrita Sher-Gil painting “Group of Three Girls”, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Suhasini Rao is the Founder, Director (Products and Operations) at CubeRoute.

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