Unwelcome30 May 2019

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Sujata’s (fictitious name) manager was new to the team, infact he was relatively new to the organization. There were certain things about his behavior that she felt were not right. She did not know who to speak to because after all it was her manager. When she finally did speak up, her narration clearly suggested that she was very uncomfortable working with him and some of the examples stated were,

  • Each time her manager walked past her workstation, he used to pat her on her shoulder when she was working at her desk
  • Her manager sent messages in the team whatsapp group, which had a double meaning. She was unable to leave the group because work matters were discussed there.
  • He asked questions and puzzles, which were sexual in nature embarrassing her, even if all the questions were not directed to her.
  • He did this to almost everyone but it made her uneasy and she, therefore, avoided crossing his path

It is imperative to note that the manager felt he had done nothing wrong. Patting on the shoulder or hugging someone was an act of camaraderie and was something he did regularly with everyone. Further, messages cited in the group were for everyone and not her in particular. According to her manager, being in a group meant that one could be free and casual with the other, which infact contributed positively to productivity.

In the above case, there are a few things that we can see. The manager had apparently behaved in a manner, which had not resonated well with Sujata. The manager appeared peacefully oblivious to the impact of his actions, even denying it, and the power game prevented Sujata from speaking up for quite some time. The manager behaved in this particular manner with everyone in the team and people seemed to be enjoying / okay with it. No one else had raised any complaint on this matter.

What are some of the questions that cross your mind when you read this case? A couple of immediate questions are; is Sujata over-reacting? I don’t think he meant anything; then does it amount to harassment? Is it really sexual harassment?

The universal definition of sexual harassment is, any unwelcome sexually determined behaviour (whether directly or by implication):

  • physical contact and advances;
  • a demand or request for sexual favours;
  • sexually colored remarks;
  • showing pornography
  • any other unwelcome physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of sexual nature.

The most important word from this definition is, ‘Unwelcome,’ which is defined as ‘unwanted’ or ‘not gladly received,’ in the English dictionary and Wikipedia. An accompanying reality with this word is that, what is unwelcome to one may not be unwelcome to the other and vice versa. Further, the boundaries need not be the same for every person around us. Boundaries are defined by our relationship with a given person. It could be because of several reasons, namely, the rapport one shares with the other, the past incidents that govern future actions, the beliefs, the comfort that the other exudes etc. Therefore, while reading a list of behaviours and actions that could be termed as sexual harassment, such a list is not exhaustive and can never be so.

An important aspect for individuals to bear in mind is, to be more aware of their actions and it’s implication on others – across genders. Something that is acceptable to one person, may not be alright for someone else, and the duty to be aware of this lies with:

  • The person who is acting or behaving in an unacceptable manner, for whom it is essential to note that if there is a slightest hint of discomfort then they should stop. Secondly, in a professional environment, going with the assumption that everyone is not going to be okay with, for example, a touch or sexually coloured messages, is a good place to begin.
  • The person who is experiencing the harassment and related discomfort, who should exercise the right to speak up immediately and make it known if some act is discomforting. Please do not wait for everyone to figure things out themselves; it’s better to take the baton in your hands.

#metoo, which broke out globally in 2016, and in India in 2018, is not a new phenomenon. It has always existed, but the voice had been on mute or meek due to several factors, but primarily because the person who was harassing was always in a position of power as compared to the person who was facing harassment. There are sexual harassment cases of varying degrees. Some which are physical and abusive, and some of them are gestures and sexually exclusive comments.

THE KEY FACT TO BEAR IN MIND IS THAT THE ACT IS UNWELCOME. PERIOD.

One of the first steps to prevent sexual harassment at the workplace is to be more mindful of our actions, and note that everyone is not welcoming of our every deed. Going with the assumption that everyone will be okay with our jokes and pats and leers etc, is NOT OK. Secondly, creating an environment where we can speak up about our harassment and be assured that the Company listens to us and will take steps in the right direction is essential to disseminate the consequences of unwelcome behaviours.

Be mindful. Get your acts right

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