Workplace decorum

C GOPINATH | Updated on January 09, 2018 Published on December 05, 2017

A gargantuan challenge to HR practitioners

Such news has been appearing in dribs and drabs but now it seems a flood. There appears to be a sudden collective motivation by victims to bare it all. I refer to the revelations of sexual harassment that have been appearing in the US media for a few weeks now.

Some perpetrators in the past escaped paying a price. In the early 1990s, Anita Hill revealed the inappropriate behaviour by her boss Clarence Thomas, yet the US Senate happily confirmed him as a judge of the Supreme Court. The shocking behaviour of President Bill Clinton towards his intern embarrassed him, but did not hurt his position in office. Rumors swirled about President John F Kennedy, but it was always non-nod, wink-wink, and life went on. But not now.

The eruption began when the New York Times in early October published an investigative story about Harvey Weinstein, a powerful film producer. The report revealed that Weinstein sought sexual favors holding out the promise of career progress, and also had financially settled with many who threatened to out him. Fortunately, the report was not swept aside as just another case of ‘casting couch’.

Quickly, women who were previously silent and had swallowed their pride and respect began to come forward and narrate their experience. Many were not even seeking vengeance or retribution, just the cathartic effect of speaking out in public about their hurt and suffering, hoping to contribute to its end, especially when seeing their perpetrators continue what seemed to be normal and successful lives.

Some wonder if this has gone too far. Are victims sure about events that happened many years ago? Is it fair on their part to accuse people without corroborative evidence and ruin the reputation of those who may have been innocent of the charge, or even had thought it was a consensual interaction?

But it is not just in the entertainment industry. The instances and charges that have been making the front pages about powerful bosses forcing themselves on vulnerable subordinates are from government, the corporate world, and sports coaches.

We need to introspect about what should be done to create a ‘safe’ work culture. There needs to be a drastic change in our attitudes towards what is acceptable behaviour between humans in the work place where we spend many hours in close proximity. Apart from codes of behaviour, human resource policies and procedures need to make it safe from retribution for a victim to express his or her fears. Bosses need to set an example by reflecting on how their behaviour is perceived by others.

Touching, hugging, patting and other physical actions can be widely interpreted. What is paternalistic to one may not be so to the other. Apart from the physical, the verbal and non-verbal can be equally damaging. Use of bad language is offensive to many, even if one is not a party to the conversation. Unfortunately, over time, it has become standard fare in the dialogue of many entertainment shows, making it embarrassing to watch in good company. Non-verbal behaviour is no less demeaning.

Sure, we can’t expect changes in behaviour overnight. But when those who feel offended courageously speak up, it helps reset standards and expectations and that is required to move forward.

The writer is a professor at Suffolk University, Boston

Published on December 05, 2017
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