Sexual harassment at workplace – A case discussion

Few months ago, we got anxious calls from the presiding officer of a POSH committee on a complaint on sexual harassment at workplace from one of their woman employees. It was about her male colleague entering her personal space repeatedly without her consent. We heard the matter out and asked a few questions to the presiding officer and this is how it eventuated.

1. Have you received a written complaint from the victim?

Answer: Yes.

Initially she met me personally and explained to me orally on what she was going through but was hesitant to lodge a written complaint. I briefed her on how, if she wishes, could raise a formal written complaint and how (the process) the committee would take the compliant forward. Apart from briefing her about her rights as a complainant, I also gave her the options of how we could write it on her behalf and then she could read it through and sign on it.

The complainant heard the procedure and decided to write us a formal compliant via email about the entire incident as a formal.

2. Did you as a committee acknowledge the receipt of the complaint by the victim?

Answer: Yes, we did within 5 minutes. We acknowledged the receipt of the complaint and that it would be immediately looked into. I have communicated that Committee will mail her shortly and also assured her that we are committed towards safe environment and do not tolerate any kind of sexual harassment at workplace.

3. Have you informed the alleged harasser already?

Answer: No. I thought, we as a committee could meet first to discuss on the scope, applicability and content of the complaint and if found to be a case of sexual harassment, then thought of deciding on our next course of action which would include meeting both victim first (to get full details) and the alleged harasser next.

I was impressed by the initial steps taken by the presiding officer. We met as a committee, discussed and debated about the case and came to a conclusion that it was indeed a case of sexual harassment (we even decided what “type” it can be categorized as) and made a list of activities that we needed to do as part of our next course of action.

This is what we did:

  1. Filed the complaint (with her signature) and our acknowledgement of that mail in our POSH file.
  2. Recorded the date and time we received the complaint, responded to the mail, and decided to meet as a committee. (we took 5 minutes to respond to victim, 2.5 hrs from the time of receipt of the complaint to meet as a committee and decide on the future course of action)
  3. Documented every minute detail of the meeting the ICC had, with clearly defined course of action, responsibilities of the members and the outcomes that we had to achieve, got it signed by all the members of the ICC and filed the same.
  4. Sent a mail to victim with the date, time and venue for the first meeting. Also informed her about the names of ICC members who would be meeting her and requested for her confirmation on the same.
  5. Sent a mail to the alleged harasser (showing him the same respect and dignity as he is not yet, proven to be guilty or otherwise), explaining in short the reason for the meeting, with the date, time, venue and the names of ICC members who would be present. We also requested him for his confirmation. A copy of the complaint was sent to the alleged harasser to come prepared for the meeting.
  6. Minutes of the meeting were documented, read and signed by both the parties and filed.
  7. Post the first meeting with Victim and alleged harasser, the committee met immediately and discussed the findings. After assessing the nature of the complaint, the gravity of the offense and our findings, we were very clear on the next course of action.
  8. In this case, since both the parties had agreed to meet face to face to sort out the issue, we arranged for cross examination.
  9. We sent out the date, time, venue and objective of the conciliation meeting to both the parties and documented the same and filed.
  10. Cross examination was an eye opener for both of them as there were, apart from certain facts, a lot of misunderstandings. The observations were recorded and documented, signed by both the parties and filed.
  11. The friendship had made the alleged harasser take her for granted and in spite of her not approving, he had tried to enter her personal space. The meeting ended with the complainant wanting a written apology and an assurance that he would not repeat the same.
  12. The alleged harasser wrote an apology letter along with an oral apology which was accepted by the complainant. The letter was documented and a copy of the same was shared by the ICC to the victim and the alleged harasser and another copy was sent to HR for filing in the personal file.
  13. The ICC met post this meeting to formally close the case and the closure was documented along with the enquiry report.
  14. A report and recommendations to HR and management was made by the presiding officer thereby closing the case successfully.
  15. The entire procedure took exactly 3 days from the day we received the complaint to closure of the case.

What worked in our favour?

  1. Receiving and acknowledging the complaint. It brings seriousness to the cause and gives a sense of immediate relief to victim.
  2. During our quarterly ICC meeting, we had developed draft of email formats for victim and the alleged harasser which made the process easy and saved time spent on creating one.
  3. Documentation of every step ensured that the case was handled professionally by the ICC.
  4. Conducting enquiries, documentation, report generation and filing was discussed and practiced, as one of the exercises, during the earlier quarterly meeting of the ICC which ensured professionalism and saved precious time.
  5. Listening was the key. Both the parties were heard out completely without interruption.
  6. The entire process was conducted in accordance with principles of natural justice
  7. Maintaining strict confidentiality built trust and openness to the entire process.
  8. Ownership and the commitment levels of the ICC members was high thereby spending productive time and focused attention till closure of the case.
  9. Closure of the case in 3 days time showed absolute urgency and seriousness in ensuring safety of employees at workplace.
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