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Desk Bound Games

The working woman is finding her feet—but pitfalls remain.

Desk Bound Games
Desk Bound Games
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The New Workplace Rules

  • Earlier: Ogle at women from safety of cubicle. Now: Send “harmless” text messages and e-mails at inappropriate times.
  • Dating the boss? Quit the job. Dating the boss? Colleagues are likely to turn a blind eye — you may even benefit.
  • No bad language around women. Keeping up with the times means hearing the colleagues out—even if comments are sexually explicit.
  • No rules to protect women. Anti-sexual harassment law exists but not being implemented.
  • After-work hours strictly private. Increasingly, colleagues across departments and levels of function interact freely after work.

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“Why don’t we meet and talk over  a glass of wine....” Sounds tame, doesn’t it? It’s the 21st century Indian workplace  and everybody knows an after-hours drink or two is acceptable between colleagues—be they of different sexes. But this text message and many more like it were sent by the well-known CEO of a Bangalore-based company to a casual female acquaintance, who wasn’t pleased with the attention. The persistent advances put her in a difficult position, given his connections and position in society. And she isn’t the only one to be at the receiving end.

An even more virulent form of texting is “sexting”—sending sexually explicit text messages. That’s how Gaurav, a 28-year-old manager in Bangalore, found that a top executive at his company wanted to “date” his girlfriend, Sangeeta (names changed on request) temporarily. Refusing the senior’s advances didn’t work as he continued to compliment Sangeeta on her looks and insist that they meet after work. One afternoon, after many weeks of refusing, 26-year-old Sangeeta had lunch with the man. During the course of the meal, she rejected him outright. The messages stopped though the confrontation was “painful”. Sangeeta decided not to report the case. “What had to happen happened and it had stopped,” says Gaurav.

“Is sexual harassment in Indian firms an everyday affair? Clearly not. Is it rare in India? Clearly not,” says Talking Heads founder N. Krishnaswamy.

Industry-watchers such as Narayan Krishnaswamy, co-founder of Talking Heads, an HR consultancy, point out that the troubling part of sexual harassment in India is that the matter is not always black and white. Nevertheless, he says: “Is sexual harassment in Indian companies an everyday affair? Clearly not. Is sexual harassment in India rare? Clearly not.” While he worked in London, Krishnaswamy observed that his male colleagues were always on guard against their own and others’ inappropriate behaviour. He found this isn’t so in India. “This (indifference) could be because jobs are more easily found in India. In a slow-growing economy, maybe you hang on to what you have. You’re more careful,” he says.

This is small comfort for people like Sangeeta and Gaurav. “The harassment was all done very ‘professionally’, on the surface, nothing more than messages and phone calls,” Gaurav says about his top boss’s behaviour. “Yes, it could have been much worse. And yes, his behaviour was not justified,” he says.

But since the Supreme Court judgement in the 1997 Vishaka case, sexual harassment guidelines have been clearly defined, says Deepti, an activist with Saheli, a women’s organisation. “If a woman doesn’t consent to something—a touch, a look, a phone call, comment or e-mail from a man—doing it amounts to sexual harassment,” she says. Women don’t complain because of the consequences after filing a complaint. You’re branded a troublemaker and eventually forced out of the job. “The system colludes to prove you are wrong,” Deepti says.

The Supreme Court says all companies must set up committees to prevent and tackle sexual harassment confidentially. However, it’s near impossible to ascertain how many Indian firms have done so. Even more difficult: determining which ones function. India’s economy has boomed since the early ’90s and many businesses have moved from dingy hole-in-the-wall offices to upscale buildings and plush interiors. But as always, during the transition, Indians are caught between the old India—where the most a woman was expected to aspire to was a secretarial job until finding a suitable husband—and the new India, where a woman can be a CEO, single and still in her 20s.

Delhi-based consultant psychologist Arpita Anand says Indian men are, in general, more comfortable with women in the workplace than a few years ago, though this varies greatly from industry or location. Nevertheless, a third of her clients (all women), she says, say they have faced sexual harassment at work. “It isn’t a gray area,” says Anand. “And it isn’t uncommon. The person doing the harassment is responsible for his actions, the company is responsible for providing justice to the victim.” Not doing so causes the victim a “high degree of distress”.

In a 2008 all-India survey, Teamlease, a hiring company for temporary workers, found that sexual harassment is seen as “a major breach of ethical conduct” by Indian employees (though not equally in all parts of the country). Hema Ravichandar, a well-known HR professional who used to head Infosys’s global HR team, says it’s only “a matter of time” before women demand to know from prospective employers whether they have staff-oriented policies like anti-harassment committees.

Of course, there are elements of ambiguity here. Men and women now compete as equals and are moving beyond “stereotypical gender behaviour”—at times, women may feel that getting ahead on the job is fair trade against sexual favours at work. Surabhi Mathur Gandhi, GM, Permanent Staffing, TeamLease Services says, “Ethics are a personal outlook, and do influence what an individual brings into his/her professional work.”

This edgy social transition in modern job situations is played out at a reputed kpo in Chennai. Former employees, speaking on condition of anonymity, say that “scenes” with the bosses were commonplace. The job was monotonous and there was no real way to distinguish a good performance from a mediocre one. It appeared that performance criteria had moved from the boardroom to the bedroom. There were whispers that both CEOs of the KPO would sleep with women employees. And a Rs 30,000-raise to favourites was not unheard of.

“If a woman preens and scores, or if she pulls a sob story and wins a promotion, I would say it’s a smart move. But I draw the line strongly at any other misconduct—strong and immediate action should be taken,” says Krishnaswamy. A further complication is a desire by women in the rat race to be treated as “equals”. “It’s a tough balancing act,” admits Sonal Agrawal Bali, CEO, Accord Group, who feels the best a company can do is to define broad behavioural norms without being seen as being too biased towards either side.

The bottomline for corporate India? Men—you have to start being on guard at work, watch your step. And women—it’s rare finding a company that will take the moral high ground.

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