Company rules are framed without much thought and implemented unevenly, say employees

In the aftermath of the Delhi gang rape incident, a multi-national BPO in Chennai issued a circular to all its employees. It was titled, ‘Dress appropriately, Act modestly.’ “In order to prevent sexual crimes, the first step has to be prevention,” said a senior official of the company, explaining the circular.

When instances of harassment do occur, “warnings, counselling, transfers and in extreme cases, suspensions – are the ways we deal with them,” says the official of the company which has 2,500 employees, of which 950 are women. 10 cases of sexual harassment were reported in the last five years, he added.

The 20-year-old IT industry is often perceived as a safe one for women who form nearly 35 per cent of its workforce. But standards differ widely in the way cases of sexual harassment are handled in the industry. “While bigger companies are strict about such cases, the smaller ones insist on nothing more than a written apology. Everything depends on the complaint and people concerned. Often, the woman asks for a transfer and it is granted,” says Rashmi Nair, an HR consultant.

In a company like HCL, for instance, the process is quite straightforward. “You complain. The enquiry is conducted by a team not associated with your own and if the complaint is found to have substance, the offender is warned or suspended. The proceedings are kept so confidential that your own teammates don’t know about it,” says an employee. However, the case is the opposite with BPOs. “The rules are hogwash, even in back-end offices of MNCs,” says S. Manushree, a BPO worker.

Another BPO employee says, “My colleague would play an item song every time I walked in. I sought a change of seating. Now, he does the same at the coffee counter.” “Frequently complimenting someone on their clothes or talking about their body, to an extent that makes them uncomfortable, is the classic form of sexual harassment,” adds Aarohi Sastri, country head (HR) of a pharma firm.

Instances of harassment linked to career prospects abound. A manager in a manufacturing firm in Sriperumbudur recalls how her boss used to constantly tell her, “be nice to me if you want me to be nice to you.” “It is easy to complain against your co-worker, but every woman thinks twice when the offender is her boss,” she adds.

Employees say that in the absence of institutions that deal with the issue, an arbitrary set of rules prevails. “Most BPOs adopt policies adopted by their foreign clients. In our firm, a rule prohibits the gifting of sex toys to colleagues in office parties, during Thanksgiving. It is not even relevant here, and shows how little care goes into drafting policies,” Sudha Narayanan, a programming assistant in a tech firm.

Many rules are not enforced either. “Many employees have pictures, obscene texts and even lewd signatures in their emails or as screensavers. They are warned if someone complains. There is no monitoring; so most of us learn to ignore them,” says S. Swarnalakshmi, who works at Tidel Park.

K. Purushottaman, regional director, NASSCOM, says the IT Industry has strived to introduce best practices to ensure a harassment-free environment. “ Ensuring the safety of women is also important to project ourselves as the best choice for clients everywhere,” he adds.

However, employees are not entirely convinced; for instance, the fear of a complaint being termed malicious looms large.  “What if the offender got out by proving the victim wrong. More importantly, what if people who supported me initially, backed out,” says Radha Sukumaran, a testing engineer. “The way out often seems to ignore the harassment as much as you can,” she adds.

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