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Thursday, November 28, 2013

Sexual harassment cases at workplace leave male employees feeling confused, fearful

By Kala Vijayaraghavan, Rica Bhattacharyya & Deepali Gupta, ET Bureau 

This week, the human resources head of a top-notch consumer goods company recently spoke to the vice-president (marketing), gently advising him to tone down his habit of putting his arms around junior women colleagues. "He is this over-effusive, friendly person prone to physical display of affection to both male and female team-mates," the HR head told ET on condition of anonymity. "But with growing incidents of sexual harassment cases at workplaces, we wanted the person to correct his behaviour for his own sake. A friendly hug could also go against him." 

Recent developments - a new act to prevent sexual harassment of women at the workplace and separate cases involving a chief executive officer, a Supreme Court judge and a prominent magazine editor - are finally forcing India Inc to adopt a 'zero tolerance' posture on sexual harassment.

But, at the same time, the heightened sensitivity and rigorous new codes of conduct are leaving male executives confused, awkward and perhaps even a little fearful over what is appropriate in their work-related engagement with women and what is not. 

Unexpected Repercussions

"Some CEOs have told me their male managers are refusing certain postings where there are women-intensive roles," says Saundarya Rajesh, founder and head of Avtar Career Creators, a talent strategy consulting firm. "Men are now afraid their natural behaviours may be seen through a different lens and land them in trouble." 

Sexual harassment cases at workplace leave men feeling confused and fearful
Adds a Mumbai-based senior manager at a consumer company: "My boss and my wife have asked me to watch my words and actions while dealing with female colleagues." 

Such fears — both well founded and otherwise — are also causing other unexpected repercussions. "I don't have evidence, but I fear hiring of women may slow down as an immediate effect," says Zia Mody, managing partner, AZB Partners.

Many companies are swinging into action. At one level, they are tightening workplace codes to protect women. "Over the last week, an increasing number of corporates have asked us to look at their manuals, conduct trainings, check compliance with Vishaka guidelines (the name by which the new act is commonly referred to)," says Mody. 

At another level, companies are also sensitising male employees and addressing their concerns and fears. About a dozen top officials and consultants ET spoke to said HR heads and company leaders are working overtime, gently correcting borderline behaviour and also addressing fears male managers have of committing a faux paus or being unfairly maligned by women colleagues.

RPG Group has kicked off etiquette workshops for men on how to behave in the workplace or even on social media to safeguard themselves. The group also conducts powerful story-telling sessions around such incidents to help leaders get a sense of what is right and what is wrong and help them pick up the essence of how to correct their behaviour. Vodafone India took some senior and mid-level managers for a similar workshop. The company is keenly stepping up gender diversity.

Men are being advised to avoid involuntarily sizing up women, putting up offensive or seemingly sexual screen-savers on computers and laptops. A general manager at a leading financial services company had the 'gentlemanly habit' of making loud offers of dropping his junior women colleagues home if they happened to work late. "It was a harmless and helpful attitude. But we requested him to offer office cars," the HR chief of the company told ET, also on condition of anonymity. "It is better to be safe than sorry. We cannot put our organisation's reputation at risk." 

Men need to be educated. "My interaction with several male employees during the course of my training programmes is that three-fourth of them don't even know what kind of behaviour could have sexual connotations or where they have crossed the line," says Priya Warrick, an etiquette trainer and clinical psychologist and president-cum-executive director of Priya Warrick Finishing School.

The etiquette school does gender sensitisation workshops for male employees through role plays and role reversals. 

Source:-The Economic Times

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