When the colleague becomes the creep

Published: 25 November, 2013 22:52 IST | Dhara Vora and Kanika Sharma |

The sexual harassment case that put the high-profile editor of a leading magazine in the dock, has raised doubts, once again, about the safety and rights of women in their workspaces. Here's a step-by-step guide to help you fight back

The rape of a young photojournalist from Mumbai in August raised concerns about the safety of women in public areas, and with a recent case of sexual harassment experienced by a young woman journalist over two days, has brought forth yet another dark facet in a working woman’s life. What was startling in this case was the absence of an Internal Complaints Committee, mandatory for an organisation employing at least 10 employees according to the Vishakha Guidelines set to safeguard women against sexual harassment.

Dr Anjali Chhabria, Psychotherapist and psychiatrist

“Sexual harassment at workplace differs from harassment otherwise, because here you have to go and face your perpetuator every day. Of several of my clients, I have seen that sadly, most cases go unheeded. While 75% of the victims we treat are women, 25% are men,” says trauma expert and author, Seema Hingorrany. She states the reason being lack of support fromcolleagues, family and spouse. Another major reason why these cases go unnoticed is the fear of losing one’s job.

Your emotional guidebook
Stage 1:- Understanding what happened?

Sometimes, it is difficult to understand if one has really been taken advantage of. Typically, we choose to give the benefit of doubt by saying probably he / she did not mean it; they were fooling around. But at times, our mind insists on thinking about it and the more one thinks, he / she realises that the person was actually harassed or assaulted. For example, “he was trying to get close to me” or “he subtly warned me if I don't give in, he will fire me,” and so on. At other occasions, workplace sexual harassment is apparent and there is no confusion involved.

To complain or not?
After knowing what happened, the question arises, what to do about it? Should I tell or do I let it go? Why should I create unnecessary hassle about it? What if it happens to someone else? A person goes through a lot of reasoning in deciding what one should do. It becomes more difficult when the assaulter has been one’s boss. The person may also doubt about reporting it as he/she may think that it will not make a difference or that it will end in him / her not having a job anymore. Thus, the workplace also needs to take the responsibility of addressing such grievances sensitively and without biases. A person must understand that it is not okay and it is not acceptable. A person may then choose to boldly confront the assaulter warning him/her (ensuring one’s safety) and/or one may go to the concerned authorities at workplace who take necessary action.

Stage 3: Self-doubt, or blame him or her:
A person often begins to blame self for the happening. For example, ‘I would have done something to make the person behave in such a way’ or ‘Maybe, I was too friendly’. However, it is important to recognise when it is not one’s own fault. Deal with wide range of emotions: It is an emotionally traumatic experience for the person as a person goes through a gamut of emotions such as anger (why did it happen?), fear/anxiety (what if he does it again?), disgust (towards the assaulter as well as self), self-pity (victimising oneself), sense of helplessness (one wasn’t able to stop it) and feelings of revenge (as a result of anger). It is important that a person identifies what emotions he or she is going through and resolve it step by step. Try not to develop generalised views towards self such as ‘all-men-are-like-this’ and so on. At times, sharing your worries helps you to gain insight, have an alternate perspective and/or guidanceas to how to deal with this situation.

Confront him or her:
It makes the survivor uncomfortable to go to work. It is important that you try and maintain distance and have a formal interaction with him / her when required. If necessary, he/she can request the seniors for a change of team, project or department. Making the concerned authorities aware of the happening can help the survivor feel more secure.

-- Dr Anjali Chhabria, Psychotherapist and psychiatrist

Get your legal facts right
By definition:

Sexual harassment is unwelcome acts or behaviour, which includes physical contact and advances, a demand or request for sexual favours, making sexually-coloured remarks or showing pornography. This is only the range of acts that constitute sexual harassment and included within the ambit of the term are also any other unwelcome physical, verbal or non-verbal conductof sexual nature. The ‘unwelcome’ nature of the act / behaviour is determined from the point of view of the affected woman, not the offender or the public at large -- this is a crucial aspect of the Vishakha guidelines, which have now been incorporated into the Sexual Harassment of Women (SHW) at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act 2013.

There are many legal and non-legal strategies to deal with sexual harassment.
1. Orally express to the offender that you find the behaviour unwelcome and ask him to stop and not to repeat it (this is most effective if done in the presence of colleagues).
2. Making a note of what he did on which date and time would help -- maintain a diary / record. It is important to note down the exact words he used or acts he did. This record will be useful if a complaint of sexual harassment is made at a later point in time.
3. Write an email / SMS to the offender, listing what he did and when, and telling him that the behaviour is unwelcome and you expect the behaviour to stop with immediate effect. The advantage with this strategy is that it creates proof of the sexual harassment.
4. Share details of the harassment with colleagues / close confidantes, who could potentially be witnesses at a later point in time.
5. Preserve all emails / SMSes / communication with and from the offender.
6. Write to the superior in the office, asking for a sexual harassment complaints committee to be set up -- if there is none setup so far -- or write to the head of the complaints committee in relation to the harassment, if a committee exists in the officeor organization. Ensure that 2 copies of the letter are sent - one of these, with acknowledgment of receipt has to be maintained with the affected woman.

-- Saumya Uma, Managing Trustee of Women’s Research & Action Group (WRAG). She is associated with the women’s and human rights movement in India for the past 18 years. International consultant for UN Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR).

“This should be a wake-up call to other media houses”
Ammu Joseph, one of the founder-members, Network of Women in Media, India (NWMI) tells us that NWMI has been engaging with the issue of sexual harassment in media workplaces well before the group’s inception. Joseph’s conversations with women journalists across the country in the late 1990s for her book Making News: Women in Journalism revealed that it was a problem and this is an issue that clearly needs to be addressed seriously by every media organisation in the country.

“I think the survivor in the Tejpal incident took the right step by clearly documenting the sequence of events that led up to and followed the actual acts of sexual assault and informing her editor about what happened in considerable detail,” Joseph informs.

She points out, “Clearly, the organisation was caught off-guard.This is particularly surprising since there have obviously been other complaints of harassment within the organisation over the years. But this should really be a wake-up call to other media houses (indeed, all employers) about the importance of complying with the law.”

She adds, “In fact, the legal definition of sexual harassment of women (in the Vishakha guidelines and the newly-passed law relating to SHW) are supposed to be put up on office notice-boards (and electronic equivalents) so everyone in the organisation -- management as well as employees -- is aware of the range of behaviour that constitutes SHW under the law. In that way, there will be no room or excuse for errors of judgement, misreading of situations, etc.”

Case studies
> Don’t blame yourself: A 33-year-old married woman was suffering from constant abuse by her senior. Her case took a bad turn as she was facing marital problems too. She blamed herself for all of this, such that she even contemplated suicide. Apart from chronic depression, one also saw her overeat, gain weight, develop thyroid, all due to the unsolved issues of harassment. After several months of therapy, she developed the strength to write an email; however, the problem was never addressed, and she was forced to quit her job. The main concern for victims in sexual harassment is to blame themselves.

> Men face it too: Not just women face sexual harassment; men face it from gay or bisexual bosses. One of my patients was a young male who was forced upon by his boss, and he gave in, eventually. His body never readied itself for this assault and he developed problems such as stomach aches, nausea, severe vomiting and finally, he had to take a sabbatical for six months.

> Report it: Advising patients to report to the police scares them off. First empathise with them and bring them back to mental stability to even take a tiny step such as writing a complaint email.

-- Information courtesy: Seema Hingorrany 

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