In my experience with accompanying my colleagues at Serein, when they conduct awareness sessions about the law on prevention of sexual harassment at the workplace, I have observed that one question we are bound to be faced with is,
“but if conduct xyz is not sexual harassment, it’s not prohibited by this law, right?”
The implications of this question never fail to both bemuse and amuse me - even if a certain conduct does not amount to sexual harassment, but simply harassment, it is still unpleasant and unwelcome. Nasty jokes and comments about another’s religion, regional background, caste or accent, sexist or misogynistic humour could all create an uncomfortable work environment for that individual. In fact, the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, in June 2016, published a report that found that workplace incivility is extremely common, and often acts as a 'gateway drug' to workplace harassment. Therefore, instead of conducting just a traditional compliance training that focuses only on the mandates of the law, the focus should be on having a more holistic conversation on respect and acceptable workplace conduct that contributes towards fostering an inclusive and healthy, and consequently, productive workplace culture.
At Serein, our approach towards training Internal Committee (IC) members embodies this philosophy. We equip IC members not only with the ability to handle effectively a complaint against sexual harassment as and when it is made to them, but also to have an all-encompassing and continuing dialogue on workplace safety and culture.
Should we need a law or an internal policy or a training session to ensure we are civil towards our colleagues?
Turns out, yes.
In a utopian workplace, this should be intrinsic, but till then, it would be useful to have reminders time and again that we all come from vastly different cultural backgrounds, so what might seem okay to us may be very offensive to someone else. With the structure of the workplace diluting into a highly flexible and casual one, one where we spend a large chunk of our days, it is natural that our colleagues are also our friends. So, the idea is not to police ourselves and curtail our interactions unrealistically with one another at the workplace - the ask is simple and the bare minimum - just be nice and kind to one another. :) It doesn’t cost a thing, especially not a lawsuit.
To continue this dialogue with us or to have us engage with your IC or your team, drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hemangini is the Legal Counsel and Head of Compliance at Serein. Hemangini studied law at the National Law University, Delhi, with a keen interest in jurisprudence and laws relating to offences against women. Prior to joining Serein, Hemangini was part of the legal team at Wipro Ltd. in Bangalore, where she worked on US Employment Law Compliance, focussing on discrimination claims filed with the EEOC, and developed an interest in understanding efforts organisations ought to make to ensure a discrimination free workplace.