HR’s reality check: #MeToo movement at the workplace

HR will have to revamp its efforts to ensure a strong culture and a safe work environment for women

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After its inception in the US a year ago, the #MeToo movement is now disrupting India with so many people being unmasked. Whether or not these allegations are true, is an endless debate. However, the best that the #MeToo movement has done is to make people break the shackles of fear and hesitation in discussing the subject. With people from across domains being named, it is no more an individual matter, and has now got organisations grappling to save their repute.

This puts HR in the spotlight as the guardians of organisational culture and employee safety. This is the time for a reality check, when HR’s entire efforts to ensure a strong culture and a safe work environment are tested for effectiveness.

“The #MeToo movement has underscored the growing need for HR to ensure that the workplace not only promotes a culture of performance, but also a sense of care for its people – by ensuring their physical and mental wellbeing,” Amit Das, director-HR & CHRO, Bennett Coleman Co.

Amit Das, director HR & CHRO, Bennett Coleman Co. (Times of India group), says, “Culture is critical to a business’ reputation and success. It is the HR department which leads in holding the responsibility of championing this culture and ensuring that employees are aligned to it in spirit. In this context, the #MeToo movement has underscored the growing need for HR to ensure that the workplace not only promotes a culture of performance, but also a sense of care for its people – by ensuring their physical and mental wellbeing.”

While there’s a lot that HR can do to ensure a safe workplace where intolerance for sexual harassment is understood and lived by, here are a few more tips on how HR can bring about a change.
1. Pre- awareness activities — It is important for organisations to organise awareness activities and enforce principles and guidelines so that let people know what is appropriate and acceptable in an organisation where men and women work together.
2. HR to lead from the front – HR needs to take it upon itself to draw a line here and set a code of conduct to make the workplace safe for both men and women. It is important to create a culture where a woman feels free to come forward immediately after such an occurrence or incident. “If a woman knows that there is a place for her to go to, if such a thing happens and there is no taboo against it, and the man knows that such a thing will get addressed, 50 per cent of the cases will itself get curtailed very effectively,’ explains Geeta Ghaneckar, CHRO, Raheja Universal.
3. Strong POSH ( Prevention of Sexual Harassment Act ) policy at workplaces – A highly empowered and accessible committee under this policy and under the law needs to be put in place to investigate and address all allegations of sexual harassment. If the committee can be chaired by a senior woman executive, it will be ideal.

“All these cases will need to be taken seriously. The responsibility lies with the HR and we have certainly not done enough,” says Geeta Ghaneckar, CHRO, Raheja Universal.

Many organisations may already be investing in such initiatives, but at times there may be gaps in effectiveness. There are two major reasons for the same:
1. Saving brand image – It takes a lot of time for a company to transform their products into a big brand and earn popularity in the market. It allocates crores of rupees for marketing and branding purposes, but when such an incident takes place in the office, the first thing impacted is the brand image.
“Observations indicate that when such events occur, the leadership and HR departments are under tacit pressure to protect the ‘Brand’ image from getting tarnished by media. Many a times in attempting to do so, they also protect the perpetrators of such acts who are often the powerful and critical business officers of the company. Whereas, the real protection is to be provided to the women associates of the company, who are unfortunately expected to overlook the incident, compromise with gender hegemony and are induced to withdraw their complaints,” shares Adil Malia, CEO, The Firm.
2. Lack of seriousness – There are times when HR officials do not take such an incident seriously and the culprit ends up getting rather encouraged, in spite of being brought to justice. “All these cases will need to be taken seriously. The responsibility lies with the HR and we have certainly not done enough. We do not take this thing seriously unless a big case comes across. We have to take care of those minor cases to bring a big change,” Ghaneckar opines.

“The real protection is to be provided to the women associates of the company, who are unfortunately expected to overlook the incident, compromise with gender hegemony and are induced to withdraw their complaints,” shares Adil Malia, CEO, The Firm.”

Malia also adds, “Leaders seem to have forgotten that employee advocacy, and advocacy of such sexually harassed women at the workplace in particular — irrespective of the POSH Act — is an inherent part of their honest leadership duty. I appeal to all external agencies also to check on the occurrence of these sexual harassment issues before declaring and certifying their clients as ‘Best Employers’ or bestowing a ‘Great Place to Work’ award on the companies.”

The #MeToo movement will definitely serve as an anchor to make CHROs proactive and take every incident seriously, so as to ensure that their workplaces are safe for women employees. Ghaneckar suggests, the HR heads remain firm and vigilant. She says, “There may have been sexual harassment cases in the past where the HR officials may not have found it significant enough or may have decided to deal with it in a way that will cause least damage to the people concerned. I don’t think that is how it is going to be handled in the future.”

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