Sexual harassment cases at workplaces in India’s largest companies fell sharply in the last financial year as these organizations shifted to remote and hybrid work models following the coronavirus outbreak.
The total number of sexual harassment complaints at workplaces in 44 Nifty companies fell 38.26% in FY21, showed data analysed by anti-sexual harassment advisory complykaro.com from company annual reports. These companies received a total of 455 complaints of sexual harassment in the year ended 31 March, compared with 737 and 739 in FY20 and FY19 respectively.
Gradual implementation of prevention of sexual harassment at the workplace (PoSH) measures were resumed via online e-module trainings and webinars, said Vishal Kedia, PoSH expert and founder, Complykaro Services.
“Urge to interact with people other than family members results in some people going overboard and violating personal space in their interaction with colleagues over digital platforms leading to PoSH complaints. There were repeated instances of employees calling up women colleagues at odd hours without justification and indulging in conversations of personal nature,” Kedia said. “Another challenge that arose because of the work-from-home system, was the delay in redressing PoSH complaints and conducting and documenting PoSH inquiries over digital platforms.”
The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, mandates listed companies to annually report the number of sexual harassment cases and the steps taken for redressal.
The data analysis showed that no company received more than 50 complaints in FY21, while five companies received 50 or more complaints in FY20. Six companies did not report any case of sexual harassment for the sixth consecutive year. These are Adani Ports and Special Economic Zone, Bajaj Finserv, Coal India, Reliance Industries, UPL and Shree Cement.
The data also showed that private firms reported more incidents of sexual harassment at workplaces than government-owned ones during FY21.
However, sexual harassment complaints pending resolution at the end of FY21 rose 5%, indicating challenges being faced by internal complaint committees (ICCs) of organizations in timely redressal of such complaints during the lockdown.
Among firms, HDFC Bank received the most complaints at 47 in FY21, though this was 10% lower than the previous year. This was followed by State Bank of India with 45 cases. Wipro showed the maximum reduction of complaints compared to earlier years, recording a 65% decline to 43 in FY21 from 125 in FY20. Other Nifty companies, which saw a high number of cases are Axis Bank (39), HDFC Life Insurance (39), ICICI Bank (33), Tech Mahindra (30), Tata Consultancy Services(27), Kotak Mahindra Bank (25), and Tata Steel (21).
A major challenge in a virtual workplace was to ensure confidentiality and put in place appropriate data and security measures while conducting virtual investigations, a spokesperson for Wipro said.
To implement the PoSH Act, Wipro created guidelines and standard operating procedures to conduct virtual investigations. These cover legal perspectives on employee declaration and are enabled by secured virtual tools. “Any grievance is expeditiously addressed through an impartial inquiry and investigation process and action is taken,” Wipro said.
Tech Mahindra had in-person meetings of the complainant with respondents and witnesses prior to the pandemic, which has now been changed to a mix of in-person and virtual investigations and meetings, said Harshvendra Soin, the company’s global chief people officer and head, marketing. “Associates who were more comfortable in meeting the ICC in person were provided with company transport and granted special leave over and above their designated days off. In case of a virtual complaint, video calls with the ICC were organised according to the convenience of the associates,” Soin said.
However, the shift to virtual workplace models has also sparked the need for companies and the government to revise policy guidelines. The current definition of a workplace can be expanded to include virtual workplaces, but there is an immediate need for amending laws to make them more specific, said Ashish K. Singh, managing partner, Capstone Legal. “Till the time the government comes up with amendments to the law, specific implementation rules can also be made by companies related to online meetings, instant messaging, and even video calls using platforms such as Zoom and Meet,” he said.
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