In the age of digital media, where news and opinions travel at the speed of light, it has become imperative for organizations to embrace well laid out guidelines and policies for Prevention of Sexual Harassment (POSH) at the workplace. The recent case of Mr R.K Pachauri, Director General at The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) has brought to light the gaps in TERI’s policies and the negative whiplash caused due to them.
Let’s deconstruct what happened and how some of the damage could have been mitigated.
On 9th February 2015, a 29-year old female research analyst working at TERI summoned enough courage to break free of Pachauri’s intimidating awe and approached the Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) of TERI with a complaint detailing the sexual harassment meted out to her by Pachauri.
The big mistake by TERI was that the ICC brushed aside the complaint, taking no action. The girl, wanting justice, filed a police complaint on 13th February. A dossier was presented to the police containing details of Pachauri’s numerous unwelcome physical overtures and his frequent and repetitive emails, SMSes and WhatsApp messages craving for love and intimacy. This harassment was apparently suffered by the girl for a year and a half. The exchanges between the girl and Pachauri clearly show that the girl had put her foot down and said a categorical ‘No’ but Pachauri chose to cross the line and persisted with his advances.
Pachauri’s lawyers rebutted the accusations upfront, contending that ‘unknown criminals’ had planted fraudulent evidence by hacking his computer, laptop and mobile, and the complainant was only trying to cover up her shoddy performance to evade an impending pink slip.
The matter is currently sub-judice, though the press embargo has been lifted. Knowing the way the judicial system works in the country, it may be some years before we will get a final verdict. But, the cruel fact is that, in the end, nobody will be a winner in this situation. The girl had to suffer harassment for one and a half years before she could bring it up to the ICC. It seems like Pachauri’s career is more or less finished. First, his scheduled participation in a global meet on climate at Nairobi was cancelled; then, Harvard politely withdrew an invite to him to attend India conference. Pachauri has now resigned – or made to resign — from the chairmanship of IPCC. TERI suffered massive backlash from the media and public. Had TERI been a consumer facing corporate house, the impact would have been much more devastating and would have resulted in a big drop in TERI’s revenue.
Let’s analyze what Pachauri and TERI did wrong and what steps could they have taken to prevent it from happening in the first place, and subsequently, how they should have handled the situation after it was brought to their notice.
Most Importantly, Pachauri needed to understand that self-righteousness does not pay and, no matter, what one’s intentions are – howsoever pure or dirty — the office is not a romantic resort. When a girl says ‘No’, it should be ‘No’. The mail exchanges between Pachauri and the girl clearly show that he made the fatal mistake of crossing the line. Pachauri can hardly draw solace from the fact that all he did was to express his unadulterated love for the girl. In one reported email, Pachauri is shown to be telling the girl that he will go on fast if the girl does not respond. This is obviously very different from calling the girl into your cabin or your house and then asking her for a quid pro quo. Still, the defence cannot be built on the fact what Pachauri could have done and did not do. Strictly from the legal point of view, there is no difference between love and lust if the girl is feeling sexually harassed.
There were numerous shortcomings on TERI’s side as well. Like most privately-run offices, TERI functioned in a boss-centric work culture that leaves no room for nipping problems in the bud. There was only a cosmetic ICC at TERI; there was no place the aggrieved girl could have gone with confidence and sorted out her problems. The problem was clearly structural. The fact is that in many offices, a perverse patriarchy still reigns supreme; the female employees are still objects of gaze, jokes and harassment. Most girls continue to suffer in silence. It will indeed be a poor defence to question why the girls suffer for long and do not complain at the first instance. Surely, it has to be a girl’s decision when to say, ‘enough is enough’. TERI should have created the process and guidelines of dealing with complaints in such a way that they would act as a shield to prevent the victim from being further harassed. Instead of having to react just a few days before the Press was at its doors, TERI should have pro-actively educated its workforce and made clear policies and prevention systems. It should have established a robust redressal system. On top of that, it should have conducted capacity building, sensitization and activities focused on building awareness to educate its employees about clear dos-and-don’ts. Everyone associated with TERI, regardless of rank or gender should have undergone compulsory training.
After receiving the girl’s complaint on 9th Feb 2015, TERI’s ICC should have acted swiftly and given confidence to the girl that she needn’t seek help elsewhere. The matter should have been dealt with internally and effectively. Not much is served by character assassination or performance critique of the victim. Issues need to be confronted and solved. Instead of a protracted legal battle, other solutions could have been embraced to solve the problem.
In fact, The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 mandates certain legal requirements, activities, procedures and processes that need to be put in place for all organizations having 10 or more employees. TERI, should have acted as an ambassador of this Act, rather than bearing the brunt of media humiliation.
Organizations need to draw lessons from this whole episode. It is time to make some changes. Formulate strict policies and guidelines for your organization. Start sensitization and education of all the members. Make an ICC committee which is empowered enough to make decisions. Take action before it is too late.
Small changes today might just make a big difference tomorrow.
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