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Sexual Harassment: Complex Questions

For every sexual harassment cases like Tarun Tejpal, Phaneesh Murthy and David Davidar, there are others that have been quietly settled, allowing the perpetrator to move to high-paying jobs

Most of India has watched, and read with grim fascination, the two high-profile sexual assault complaints. One, against Tarun Tejpal, the controversial founder of Tehelka and another against a highly respected retired judge of the Supreme Court. But, in corporate corridors, the non-stop coverage has triggered a different sort of worry. Senior officials are worried about the systems and procedures that need to be put in place, while experts in gender law say that the duties and obligations of employers are not yet crystal clear. Consequently, there is a sense of panic about being dragged into unanticipated situations; precautions are often veering to the other extreme.

Dr Hemant Morparia’s cartoons on the Tehelka issue seem exaggerated to evoke laughter (see alongside); but consider what is happening in the corporate world today.
    A CEO pulls up a woman employee for walking away without completing an important presentation to be delivered the next day. The boss had to sit back and do it himself. When he pulls her up, she bursts into tears. His first reaction is to rush to open the cabin door so that the entire office is witness to the interaction.

    A corporate group, with profits in excess of Rs1,000 crore, which already has ‘open office’ plan, has decided to install cameras in the cabins of every CEO and top executive as well as in open areas to avoid problems. It is an excessive reaction, but the group says ‘better safe than sorry’.

     In another situation, when a company wanted to sack a top executive for sending lewd messages and pictures to an employee, it is the victim who pleaded against the sacking. “He has a family; I will never forgive myself for destroying their lives. All I wanted is for him to be reprimanded and told not to repeat the offence,” she said. But hysterical media coverage, following the Tehelka issue, suggests that there is little scope in the new rules for agreeing with the employee. What happens if the executive repeats the offence? Will it go against the employee for being ‘soft’ the first time? Will it make the employer culpable for failing to report the case? And worse, what happens if the employee resigns, joins another firm and repeats the offence?

    What happens when companies are forced to sack a CEO or a senior executive overnight? Tarun Tejpal’s arrest has, most probably, destroyed Tehelka, but the impact can be considerable even on larger companies. The head of law and secretarial practice at a top Indian company tells me about the ‘Phaneesh Murthy exclusion’ that nobody talks about openly. While no insurance company says so upfront, she says, re-insurers refuse to cover sex-pests in the directors’ liability cover.

All these are real situations that are happening everyday across the world, including in media organisations; but gender-law experts seem to suggest that the new rules provide no scope for such leniency. Will this encourage women to report harassment, or make it difficult for women to even confide to wary colleagues about being harassed? Activists and legal experts agree that the bold, gutsy women, like the law intern who dared to write about the retired Supreme Court judge and the Tehelka journalist, are truly brave in reporting harassment and pushing the envelope for better laws and safer workplaces for women. But will the sacrifice eventually be worth their careers?

Madhuri Shajhir (name changed), a chartered accountant who has fought a gruelling six-year battle with KPMG, a top accounting firm, is completely disillusioned.  She was on the fast-track to a top post in the ‘big four’ firms; her career is finished, she has been mired in the most humiliating litigation and is battling a variety of dirty tricks unleashed by the firm and her ex-boss. That she is repeatedly praised for a dogged fight or that her boss was finally asked to leave the firm is cold comfort, when there is no sign of her case nearing any fair resolution. She asks:  “Why did I join this company believing its global code of conduct and what it said on the website?”

Madhuri’s experience raises another important question: Is the media guilty of misleading women into believing that complaints work? The media discusses high-profile cases and moves on. For every Tarun Tejpal, Gopal Kanda, Phaneesh Murthy and David Davidar, there are others that have been quietly settled, allowing the perpetrator to move to high-paying jobs. In fact, even women journalists refuse to expose sex-pest editors and prefer to move on, because they are fully aware of the legal delays, the humiliation of having the victim’s stories doubted and her motives questioned, the utter apathy, and often bias, of the National Commission for Women (NCW) and the legal system.

Many senior executives wonder what their legal obligations are, if a colleague confides in them about being harassed by a senior. For instance, one reaction was: “It is okay for the journalists in the Tehelka case to support their colleague and corroborate her version; but wouldn’t I be jeopardising a really well-paying job by sticking my neck out? Would I be forced to risk a much needed income and successful career, if the police initiates suo moto action and I am forced to testify?” After all, the attention and sensitive dealing in a case that attracts enormous media attention is completely missing in thousands of routine complaints that are filed everyday.

Advocate Mini Mathew, a Mumbai-based expert on sexual harassment and gender-related laws, agrees that there are no easy answers and that it is an evolving situation. More than 16 years after the path-breaking Vishaka judgement and in the aftermath of national outrage over the brutal Delhi gang rape last year, we saw the The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 being passed by parliament and receiving presidential assent on 23 April 2013.

This Act has expanded the scope of sexual harassment, mandated the constitution of internal complaints committees (ICC) to look into complaints, spelt out the composition of ICCs and fixed a 90-day period for completion of inquiries and another 60 days to act on the ICC report. Employers who fail to comply with the Act will pay a fine of Rs50,000 for first-time offences and more in repeat cases. While this is extremely positive, there are also serious worries that some of the provisions are draconian and unworkable and will only be settled by test cases when there are actual complaints.

Meanwhile, HR and legal heads of companies are in a tizzy trying to find out what the new legislation mandate in terms of setting up an anti-sexual harassment committee, its composition and its terms of reference. They also want to know where to find experts who understand the various nuances of conducting such inquiries with sensitivity. Smaller companies that struggle to be profitable wonder if they can even afford such committees and whether they should hire women at all.

The good news is that companies are being forced to think about what is acceptable behaviour in the workplace and what is not. People come from different backgrounds in a male-dominated society; there is usually an effort required to sensitise employees and make them aware of the legal implications of their behaviour. The good news is that activists really believe that training and gender sensitisation works and organisations that are determined to provide a safe workplace for women do succeed in this objective by spelling out what constitutes appropriate and unacceptable behaviour and making it clear that there will be consequences of crossing the line, irrespective of who the person involved is.

Sucheta Dalal is the managing editor of Moneylife. She was awarded the Padma Shri in 2006 for her outstanding contribution to journalism. She can be reached at [email protected]



Mahesh S Bhatt

3 years ago

Women are source of Energy ie Shakti & Shiv without Shakti is Shava(dead body).

Why donot we inculcate the Values of revering/ respecting/ complementing/supplementing women force in our lives.

Sex battle has no end bed becomes battlefield & world crumbles.

Work on mutual respect /love.God has made them for each other & not against each other.Respect/Enjoy divine signatures/differences.


Dayananda Kamath k

3 years ago

when you create laws based on lobbying by powerful and vested interests it will happen and everybody will try to take advantage of special rights. when the constitution has the principal of equality passing special laws benefiting a certain section will only lead to its misuse.


nagesh kini

In Reply to Dayananda Kamath k 3 years ago

We still blindly hang on to the archaic and hackneyed over century and half framed by the 'goras' just because our present generation is not qualified to enact right language - why should the Lok Pal Bill be hanging for 42 years, the DTC and Womens Reservation Bills for God knows how long. The Companies Act 2013 seeking to replace its 1956 predecessor was held up by a powerful business and auditor lobby because they perceived that there were many provsions that would hit them hard.
Will the AAP broom sweep them clean is the moot point!

Nihar Mody

3 years ago

Definitely a sorry state of affairs. Remember there are two sides of the coin, as we have repeatedly seen in Anti Dowry laws being misused.

The best thing is not to hire Ladies for work.

Has the law considered, how many ladies use ulterior methods for advancing their careers? and then use these laws to blackmail?

Media wants to sell their product or wants viewership. They sensationalise. Have they forgotten "Vishvamitra-Menka" episode? or for that reason "Matahari".

Rember "Madhur Bhandarkar - Preeti Jain" case. It is a very old use the sex for getting the job done/advancements etc, when things go sour accuse of rape.


nagesh kini

In Reply to Nihar Mody 3 years ago

Nihar - you're echoing what Dr. Farooq Abdullah said and this was called a 'sexiest' remark even his son Omar!


In Reply to nagesh kini 3 years ago

It is a fact that fear complex have started creeping into the minds of office heads who have lady subordinates.

nagesh kini

3 years ago

The Ganguli case has exposed our apex court that doesn't have in place a Committee despite it's own Vishaka verdict and this indicates the chicks in the armour for implementation and enforcement of good intensioned regulations.
Agreed there are many more Phaneeshs and Davids, but what happened to these high profile exposures ? They are simply let off scot free even without a simple knuckle hit only to move up notwithstanding their gross misdemenours!
Why have the State/national Commissions not moved suo moto against them both in the absence of any effective action by the companies?

Vaibhav Dhoka

3 years ago

In most cases where aberration of law or settled practice in day to day affair takes place it is justice system which takes very very long time to punish violator and therefore higher % of victims avoid to make formal complaint.Our judicial system is too lethargic and extremely slow when justice is sought by common man.The stand Supreme court took in Justice Ganguli will be seen as cowardice and will help other institutions umbrage as Retired.Supreme courts stand is conflicting in respect of judgement and stand it takes in giving judgement in sexual harassment cases.

Nifty, Sensex hits all-time high: Monday closing report

Nifty responded strongly to the assembly election results creating all-round optimism

The stock markets ended strong on Monday, with both NSE Nifty and BSE Sensex hitting all-time highs, after news that Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have taken control of three key states: Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. Delhi remains hotly contested between BJP and Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). It remains to be seen what will happen to political outcome at the capital. The markets see it as a pre-cursor to the upcoming general election. Both the Nifty and Sensex stayed strong throughout the day. However, strong economic and jobs data from the US only further boosts the case for tapering which could undermine today’s strong move in the coming days. PIMCO, a renowned bond firm, is cautiously optimistic on Indian markets.


The BSE 30-share Sensex opened up at 21,416, hit an intra-day high of 21,483 (also an all-time high) and then mildly trended down to an intra-day low of 21,282 before rebounding to close at 21,326 (up 329 points or 1.57%). Similarly, Nifty opened up at 6,415, then hit an intra-day high of 6,415.25, trended down to hit an intra-day low of 6,345 before closing at 6,363.90 (up 104 points, or 1.66%).


All indices finished in the green. Media, realty and banking indices finished strong.


Of the 50 stocks on the Nifty, 40 advanced and 9 declined. The top gainers were DLF (6.07%); Sesa Sterlite (5.02%); ACC (4.95%); Ambuja Cement (4.57%) and ICICI Bank (4.45%). The top losers were Jindal Steel (-6.17%); Cipla (-0.84%); Lupin (-0.72%); Tata Steel (-0.62%); Cairn (-0.46%).


In a desperate effort to boost image, the government is apparently planning to replace the Direct Tax Code 2010 with a new version, which includes a possibility of abolishing cess for individuals and companies. Even surcharges might be done away with. 


Asian markets were up, with Nikkei jumping 2.29%, after strong US economic data released on Friday weakened the Yen. Chinese inflation slowed more than estimated, to 3% in November. China November exports rose 12.7% from year earlier, topping the estimated 7% gain. However Shanghai Composite index remained flat. Political problems in Thailand reached the boiling point after it was decided to dissolve Thailand’s parliament and call for elections amidst intensified protests.


In Europe, German trade surplus reportedly narrowed down. German October industrial output fell 1.2% versus estimated 0.7%. However, European markets were mixed and flat. Germany’s DAX was trading flat, with a downwards bias.


On Friday, the Dow Jones Industrial Average jumped 198 points, or 1.3%, to 16020.20, the largest rise in seven weeks, near all-time highs. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note barely rose, which is a good sign, all pointing to a strong dollar. The US stock futures were seeing marginally up during early trade.


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