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Battling predators at work

Vinaya Deshpande
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The Vishaka guidelines were meant to counter sexual harassment in the office but women employees who complain often end up fighting a lonely, difficult battle.

This is the story of a woman who allegedly suffered sexual harassment at her workplace, a multi-national company, but did not give up the fight even after the organisation suspended and later dismissed her.

Activists have lamented how women who choose to fight the demon of sexual harassment at the workplace are often targeted. In cases where they decide to struggle alone, they are shown the door. Lack of strong protective legislation worsens their plight.

To hear her tell it, the case of 32-year old Rama Lobo (name changed to protect identity) was no different. She is now entangled in a maze of cases and counter-cases running in various courts, nearly a year-and-half after she was suspended from service. But this mother of two children has not given up. Nor has her family, which is backing her.

Rama Lobo joined Godrej Hicare Ltd on December 1, 2005. The division merged with ISS Integrated Facility Private Limited, a Denmark-based MNC, in April 2009. She worked with ISS Hicare Private Limited, a Pest Management Service provider which is a part of ISS Group — one of the world’s largest facility services providers with a presence in Europe, Asia, USA and Australia. The company is fighting the sexual harassment and unfair dismissal charges in court and has also filed a defamation case against her.

Ms. Lobo worked in the HR (Human Resource) department and was a top performer with consistently good ratings, so much so that her organisation even funded her e-MBA programme by paying Rs. 3 lakhs. According to her, things changed when a new person joined the organisation in 2010 at a very senior position in the HR department. Ms. Lobo’s boss, who used to report to him, resigned abruptly. And she then found herself shifted to various sections, kept without work for some time, and allegedly given hints about “performing as per expectations.”

Every time she was put on a new task which she had not done earlier, she took it as a challenge and excelled at the job — something admitted to by her colleagues and bosses including senior HR personnel.

But the hints did not stop and one day, when she wanted to know why she wasn’t being promoted despite good performance, she was allegedly told that mere performance was not sufficient, and that she needed to sit after office hours for getting promoted.

“On June 29, 2011, [My boss] told me, ‘You don’t understand how to get promotions, you are very hardworking and honest and your performance is excellent, but this is not enough, I told you before also, you have to use your body and your nose, mouth and tongue to get things done and to go up the ladder.’ While talking about all this, he pressed his hand against my hand and gestured very seductively,” Ms. Lobo told  The Hindu .

 Unable to bear it, she says she screamed at him and stormed out of his office to the nearest police station to register a complaint. Her office staff persuaded her not to file a police complaint, fearing the reputation of the company would be scarred. A senior management official assured her that her complaint would be heard by the internal committee for investigating sexual harassment.

But while hearing her case on June 30, the company allegedly flouted the Supreme Court's guidelines under the Vishaka judgment, as also its internal regulations under the firm’s sexual harassment policy.

The confidentiality clause was breached even as the top management held a meeting with female staffers later and told them that Ms. Lobo had raised a sexual harassment complaint as she was unhappy at not being promoted, and that the accused person was not at fault. The internal committee, which signed its report on July 5, concluded that Ms. Lobo’s allegations were untrue.

 When asked by  The Hindu  in a detailed email about the alleged flouting of norms and other pertinent queries, ISS Hicare responded, “We wish to state at the outset that the matter is sub judice and hence, we do not wish to give any comment at this juncture. The allegations are completely false and baseless. In fact the accused person [has] already filed a defamation suit against Ms. Lobo [name changed] and it is accepted by the court.”

It is, ultimately, the case of a high performer turned into a “dull, lazy, adamant and non-cooperative” employee. She had also “brought disrepute” to the company by escalating the matter to the senior management of the parent company outside the country. The company, which, she claims, initially promised her an apology letter and a promotion later suspended her before sacking her unceremoniously, on August 13, 2012 after deciding her complaint was untrue.

“I was only talking about my dignity. I demanded a safe working environment. If I brought the injustice to the notice of my own seniors in the parent company, how did I bring disrepute to the company,” she asked.

Women’s rights activists have pointed out that the organisations generally view such cases from the perspective of the company's prestige and not as breach of an individual employee’s right to dignity and safety, leading to skewed attitudes and hushing up of such cases.

It was the Bombay High Court which came to the rescue of Ms. Lobo.

On the basis of a writ petition filed by her, it directed the police to register a First Information Report in the case and directed the company to reformulate a committee as per the Vishaka guidelines to investigate charges of sexual harassment.

The company has filed counter-cases of defamation and extortion against her and her husband.

The accused has also filed a defamation case against her in a local court. The proceedings in all the cases continue.

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