Sexual harassment at workplace: Whose side is HR on?


Can HR play the ‘knight in shining armour’, and balance the equation between employee advocacy and brand advocacy when challenged?

Indeed, it’s a tough call to take. You are the custodian of organisation’s internal brand and your job is to safeguard the organisation from any kind of reputation loss. At the same time, you are also the people’s manager and your job is to ensure that people get a healthy and safe environment to work in. You’re the HR and what should you do?

Traditionally, in businesses, sexual Harassment cases are tried to be kept hush-hush especially when it involves a person in power – read CXO. In case the news spreads out, the damage is immense and from all corners –consumers, clients, stakeholders and employees. There is a sudden downfall in the brand’s commercial value.

Honestly, for HR, it’s no sweat to take action against a mid-level or a junior employee. But not when the accused is the person whom you are reporting to or any other person of the same rank.

It’s parodic that HR has been accused of showing loyalty towards the organisation and the senior management in many cases, intentionally or unintentionally, play the good brand custodian, make all efforts to shield the organisation from any negative imagery.

This is also why the government has introduced strong, supportive policies and laws against sexual harassment at work and has also launched an online complaint management system that will monitor such cases.

Adil Malia, CEO, The Firm, who himself has been a senior HR professional, says, “On the one hand, while the fierce and mercenary forces of ‘business & brand’ expect HR to work closely with the business leadership to create monetary value for the enterprise, on the other hand, the wise forces of ‘governance & employee advocacy’ expect HR to be the just and wise keeper of the spiritual values of the enterprise,”

Agreed, it’s a catch 22 situation for HR. What should HR do? Malia opines that the two contradictory forces —business & brand, and employee advocacy—need to be maturely balanced by HR, as the enterprise cannot create or sustain value without both these factors present in equal measures.

The question is can HR play the role of a knight in shining armour, balancing the equation between employee advocacy and brand advocacy when challenged?” More so, when one’s own career growth and loyalty towards business may be questioned if one plays the role of a fair umpire to guide such investigation against sexual harassment complaints?

Yes the world is not full of equals. There may be HR heads who will indulge in brand-protective back-tracking and evidence destructive behaviours to show cheap ‘brand loyalty’ and earn career brownie-points for themselves but there are also brave HR chiefs who have provided the brave support required to such victims of harassment.

There have been cases where the CEO of one of the largest IT companies had to step down for such immoral behaviours or an entire top management team of a large cola brand was replaced.

Not just HR, even the organisation took the bold step to accept the initial damage and take necessary steps to clear the brand from any further tarnishing in the future.

Saundarya Rajesh, founder-president, AVTAR Group and someone who has made remarkable efforts in encouraging gender diversity at the workplace, quips, “With many high-profile cases of sexual harassment out in the open, I don’t see the HR machinery being protective of the accused (even if they are part of the senior leadership team).

She concurs that companies have realised that influencing trials or hushing up cases only puts their reputation at risk— of repeated incidences of similar nature or worse still, media backlash— especially in these times of social media proliferation.

Many believe that HR shouldn’t play a balancing act, rather it should stick to a fair procedure and be completely neutral.

Pradeep Mukerjee, founder and director of Confluence Coaching & Consulting, concurs, “Besides providing emotional support and counselling, it is the prime responsibility of HR to ensure that a strong and fair process is followed.”

Mukerjee asserts that once it is proven that one of the employees is guilty of sexually harassing someone, HR should focus on invoking a fair process and doing all that is in its might to ensure that justice is delivered.

Even the Vishakha Guidelines under The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, mandates stronger procedures for workplaces.

Rajesh shares, “Sensitisation around POSH is not a meagre tick-in-the-box HR activity anymore. It is a seriously implemented continual initiative that includes classroom and online training sessions and awareness campaigns.”

That said, the state also mandates that every company has an Internal Complaints Committee in place, to which one can report cases of sexual harassment. Such committees are required to be neutral bodies, not directly controlled by the HR machinery. A legal expert (a company outsider) is mandatorily part of every such committee to ensure neutrality in the committee sittings.

In order to further strengthen that, Malia suggests that senior c-suite leaders give a feeling of fairness in governance. “The Sexual Harassment Committee should report in to the ‘Nominations Committee’ or its equivalent People Advisory Committee of the Board, led by an independent director (preferably a woman director on the board), who has to be periodically briefed and updated of the enquiry and processes in such cases,” he opines.

Mukerjee asserts that it is extremely important for HR to earn its due credibility in the organisation – both of the management and of the people. “This is unfortunately what HR function across the globe and industries has lacked for years. Although HR has now emerged as a strategic business partner, it cannot afford to forget the fact that its roots lie in connecting people with the business, and that is only possible through building trust and transparency in the workplace.

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