Recently, New York Times, in an exposé, alleged that a very prominent Hollywood producer, Harvey Weinstein, has been sexually harassing women for ages. Subsequent to the publication of that exposé, many other women have come forward and accused Harvey Weinstein of sexual harassment. Some have even accused him of rape. According to the article, he had preyed on women for years. It seems this fact was an open secret to many in the Hollywood community. However, because of the power and control he wielded over the entire movie industry, it seems, he was allowed a free rein by those who could have stopped him.Now, some might say that this isn’t new in Hollywood. Couch casting has been going on for ages and will continue to go on unreported for years to come. This incident involving Harvey Weinstein is just a blimp on the radar. That may or may not be true; I don’t’ know. However, what I do know is that sexual harassments are not just prevalent in the entertainment industry. They happen in other walks of life, too, especially in the corporate workplace.
Yes, sexual harassment in the corporate workplace is real, is endemic, and it affects both men and women. In this blog post, we will talk about sexual harassment of women at workplace. In another post, we’ll talk about sexual harassment of men at workplace. Also, I’ll share with you, what seems, in many cases, sexual arrangements at workplace. I know many will completely deny that sexual arrangements at workplace ever take place. However, from what I have observed, seen and heard personally, and what many will confirm secretly, it does happen and will continue to happen. Collective denial, notwithstanding.
The corporate Harvey Weinsteins
Let me introduce you to the Harvey Weinsteins of the corporate world. For the purpose of this blog post, let’s name them Hans. Unlike Harvey Weinstein, who looks like a creep anyway, many of the Hanses of the corporate world will be suave, smooth, charismatic, manipulative and handsome, among many other things. They will be extroverts with a very charming personality. They will be highly intelligent and very successful in their respective fields. In many cases, the Hanses will be married with a kid or two. However, they will be always looking for quick fling on the side to spice up their life—married or otherwise. In a few cases, though, you find that the Hanses are single and preying.
A few of the Hanses will be high on the totem pole, too. Hence, their reach will be wide. They will know the right things to say to make you smile or feel important, be there at the right moment with their offer of help, get sponsors for a couple of your projects, put in a word or two to ensure your promotion to the next level or a lateral move.
Every single thing that a Hans will do for the woman of his interest will be contingent upon an equitable return of his “investment” on her. Consider his attention a credit he extends to that woman. He will want his due back immediately or sometime in the future. He will promise further investment in her for a quid-pro-quo. In other words, sexual favors.
However, we also need to understand that there will be quite a few women who will willingly walk into the Hanses’ lair. Basically, many women will acquiesce to a relationship with the Hanses because the “transaction” will be win-win for both the parties. Yes, some of those women will grow a conscience later on and cry sexual harassment, but, at that particular point in time, when a particular transaction matters, they will go into that deal on their own free will.
What is sexual harassment?First, let’s describe what is the legal definition of sexual harassment. The Sexual Harassment at The Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, defines sexual harassment as:
- Unwelcome physical contact and advances
- Quid-pro-quo—some benefit promised in return for sexual favors
- Making sexist jokes, unwelcome sexual remarks
- Making unwanted and explicit sexual overtures.
- Showing pornography without their consent
- Overt or covert promise of preferential treatment in employment
- Open or implied threat of discriminatory treatment in employment
- Overt or covert threat of present or future prospects with the company
- Hostile work environment through intimidating, inappropriate or unwelcome behavior.
- Humiliating work environment causing mental/physical stress, agony and affecting personal safety.
Please keep the following things in mind:
- Please note that this act is only for women being harassed in workplaces. Go figure!
- If you are a man who is being sexually harassed in the workplace, then, you are SOL. And, we do know that men are never sexually harassed in the workplace. Right?
- The definition of sexual harassment is pretty much consistent universally.
I met the first Hans very early on in my career. He was one of the managers of the firm. Hans-the-manager had returned from a gig oversees and was given this new opportunity by the company head honchos. He was the favorite and the go-to guy of the divisional head. This Hans guy was an utter failure as a manager. Most of the projects he led failed. Yet, he continued to get promoted and get more projects to lead. Hans-the-manager was a sleaze and a degenerate, too. He once sent an email to the entire business unit with the subject “Sex”. He then continued on his email, “Now that I have your attention, let me …” A clever way to get the attention, indeed, but is it the right way? Y’all be the judge of it.
It was an open secret in the organization that Hans-the-manager was sordid, seedy, promiscuous and without a moral compass. Hans-the-manager radiated sleaziness. Ugh! He would pursue any attractive woman working for the organization. Yet, nobody raised an eyebrow and nobody from the leadership team asked him to mend his ways.
It seemed he was allowed a free rein because he was the divisional head’s favorite go-to guy. His colleagues, mostly women, took no offense at his behavior. Nobody seemed outraged. Either it was a case of “who’ll bell the cat” or “ignore it and it will go way” or covering their eyes and ears and screaming “la, la, la, la… I can’t hear you or see you” or “sweep it under the rug and let it be somebody else’s problem”. Since nobody said anything to him, he kept on with his debauchery.
Everybody in the division knew that he had his eyes set on a young woman whom he was paying special attention to. Surprisingly, the young woman responded to his advances knowing full well that he was married and just had his first child. They flirted openly and got caught in uncompromising positions a few times. The private security guards caught them in the act a few times. Many colleagues of mine found them hiding in “nooks and crannies” of the building while engaged in various activities. They worked late and since they lived in the same general area she would get a ride home—no pun intended—almost regularly. Their relationship continued unabated until she was selected to go to the US on a company project.
Now, I don’t know if we can call this quid-pro-quo sexual harassment. You decide. To me, at least, it seemed both individuals entered the relationship (arrangement) on their own free will. Hans-the-manager was not the young woman’s supervisor. He was not in a position to be able to fire her or demote her. However, he did have the reach, the power, the means and the influence to control someone’s career path. After all, he had the ear of the divisional head.
Hans-the-manager could control who gets transferred to the US. And, at that point in time, it was everybody’s dream to go to the US. I don’t know, whether any of that played a part in this partnership taking form. Whether he promised her to use his position of power to get he what she wanted only if she returned the favor in another form. Only they would know. From what I remember, she never once showed any displeasure towards him. To many of us who knew her, some knew her very closely, she never considered his advances unwelcomed. She never seemed offended by his insinuations, innuendos and double entendres. In fact, she reveled in his attention. She enjoyed the affection he showered on her. Whether she would look at it differently in hindsight is something only she would know.
I met my second Hans in the same job, too. This Hans was a developer, and he had his eyes set on a girl in his team. He pursued her everyday and confided in his friends how he had fallen in love with her, and how he had to win her over. What he didn’t tell them though was that this was all a ploy and an elaborate lie to lay her. It was only later that we learnt the stunts he had pulled to get her.
A master manipulator that he was, he lied to her about his undying love for her and promised her marriage. He played with her mind and her emotions, finally, got what he wanted and dumped her the next day. As far as I know, the act was consensual, but it was set up using deceit, lie and inveigle. She was devastated by what he had done. I don’t think the word ‘devastated’ even does justice to what she went through those few days and weeks. If I remember correctly, she left the firm shortly afterwards.
Both the management and the HR knew about what had happened; yet, nothing happened. No corrective actions or measures were taken by the company. Hans-the-developer was not reprimanded, pulled up, disciplined or fired for his actions. Well, how could they, because, Hans-the-manager had already set a precedent and nothing was done to contain/correct him. Discipling one of the predators and not the other would have opened a big can of worms for the company. And nobody wanted to air/clean the dirty laundry without causing a big embarrassment for the C-suite executives or as I like to call them C-suite hack-utives. And you know, I am sure, how HR has mastered the art of burying dirty laundries of the C-suite hack-utives.
Hans-the-developer then set his eyes on another girl, whom he thought he could get to with his manipulative ways. Actually, he did. However, after he had pulled off his stunt, the girl in question hired a few local goons, got him “waylaid” on his way to work, took him to a nearby temple and had a shotgun wedding. You cannot make this s*** up. As they say, karma is a b****. The bottom feeder had it coming for him.
Hanses and the festival of colors
Holi, the festival of colors, is one occasion when many Indian men will live out their sexual perversions. Holi “allows” men to touch another women, even a complete stranger, with the excuse of applying colored powder (Gulal/Abir) on their face/body. It is during Holi celebrations that groping, touching, pinching of various body parts, unwelcome hugging and various other perverse behavior go unnoticed, ignored or is brushed aside as “it was unintentional”.
Office Holi parties are infamous for men going overboard while applying abir/gulal to their female colleagues. There are many stories of men boasting about the number of female colleagues they have groped during Holi festivals.
Recently, one of the persons I mentor shared with me how her manager boldly proclaimed how he would be playing Holi with her. He went into lurid details about how he would come to her house, tie her up and put grease and oil on her. All these just in response to her stating that she will stay home and not take part in Holi festivities that year. She left the meeting disturbed, in fear and in tears.
Useless HR: the BFF of the Hanses
Now, some may ask, “did she raise the matter with HR?” No, she didn’t. Because another girl working for the same manager did escalate to HR about her facing sexual harassment from him. Would you like to know what HR did with that complaint? Nothing, zippo, zilch, nada, goose egg, bugger all, sweet Fanny Adams.
Surprisingly, at the year-end, the girl’s job performance was rated as below par, and she was put on a performance improvement plan. She eventually quit the firm, instead of facing harassment from the manager. And this incident did not happen in a small, average sized, nondescript or run-of-the-mill company. This incident happened in one of the biggest companies in the world.
That’s why I always make this remark to those still in the workforce, remember that in a fight between employees and the hack-utives, the HR will always take side of the hack-utives. HR is dead. Employees mistakenly believe that HR is there for them. They couldn’t be more wrong-er-er. No, HR exists to protect the C-suite hack-utives from you, the employees. Once upon a time, HR may have been all about the people. Not anymore.
In another case, one of my team members had a meeting with a director of the firm, early in the morning, while most of the office was empty. Later on, she recounted in horror how the director reached out and put his hand on her shoulder while making a point. This was the first time she was meeting him, and his over-friendliness creeped her out. Oh, the hand on the shoulder move to show understanding, compassion or friendliness. How many men have tried that over the years?
Emily was barely 22, just out of college and into her first job. She was in a 10 member team, all men except herself. Every weekend, when the entire office is empty, the male team members would ask her to come to work on some pretext or the other. Even when the task at hand was minor, which she could take care of the following week, they wanted her at work. Next, when all alone with her, they would touch her now and then, and stand extremely close to her while explaining various job assignments. The manager of the team, one of the offenders, was a close friend of the CEO of the company. After a while, unable to bear the unwelcome physical contact and advances, she complained to the HR. She was fired by the CEO, who was a touchy-feely-creep himself, the very next day.
This particular company is owned and operated by two brother—one the CEO, the other the COO of the company. The company was male dominated, and there were just five female employees. All female employees, except one, were uncomfortable with the CEO. He would touch them at every opportunity or hold their hands while talking to them. He would call them to his room on one pretext or other, offer them rides even when they did not want any. Once, he called one of his women employees to his room to discuss a project. While discussing the project, he put his hand on the small of her back and told her that she had a nice body and nice curves. Sexual harassment? You bet!
One female employee did not mind their touchy-feely ways and, therefore, was their preferred colleague. While on camping trips or some other outdoor events, she didn’t mind sleeping in the same room/tent as the rest of the male employees. Her choice. Free will, I guess. Or, maybe forced into it due to circumstances or threats. The rest of the women employees had to go through hell, because one of them was okay with their perverse ways and rest of them weren’t. The company is still operating. The CEO is still the CEO, the COO is still the COO, and, quite possibly, women are facing sexual harassment even today.
Now, many of you may be offended at what I am going to write about next. However, the matter needs to be discussed, because not discussing the truth does not mean it did not happen or does not happen. If there is sexual harassment in the workplace, on the one hand, there is sexual arrangement in the workplace, on the other hand, too. That’s a fact, and I have heard first hand account of such an arrangement from one of the persons involved.
The first incident I’m going to talk about happened in one of the biggest firms in the world. It is a very reputable company. It has its footprint in many countries around the world, including India. The divisional head of the company, a married man, had a torrid affair with one of his female employees. The female employee was a widow. The affair was consensual, not forced, and was a quid-pro-quo arrangement. The affair ended only when the wife of the divisional head found out about it and confronted him and the female employee. In order to prevent the affair from destroying his personal and professional life, the divisional head buried the matter by buying a house for the female employee. I don’t know what he bought his wife to save his marriage.
The second such arrangement that I am privy to happened in a company that is no longer in operation. It happened between the CEO and a female employee. In this case, however, both of them were married with kids. She was extremely ambitious and would do almost anything to get to the top, and he was too sleazy to not exploit such situations. She got what she wanted, and he got what he wanted.
I know of few other such sexual arrangements, but why bother discussing them all. The basic structure remains the same—quid-pro-quo. The moot point being such arrangements are not forced or unwelcomed or unwanted. Both parties go into that relationship willingly, on the own free will. And both parties extract their pound of flesh.
In the 20 years or so I spent in the corporate world, I lost count of the number of times I heard about, experienced, and noticed sexual harassment at work. I also heard and noticed quid-pro-quo sexual arrangements—not forced, cajoled, unwanted or unwelcomed—at work. What I also realized is that there is a fine line between sexual harassment and sexual arrangements at work. Sexual arrangements can become sexual harassment, when, suddenly one day, somebody grows a conscience or the deal falls through or somebody more interesting and willing comes along.
What do experts recommend?
If you look at some of the materials available on the web on how to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace, you’ll find a few common themes across all of them. Let me list them down, along with my observations, for you.
Create a strong sexual harassment policy.
This is generally an HR consultants first response. Yes, as if a strong sexual harassment policy will immediately deter or completely stop sexual harassment in the workplace. Almost all large companies have a sexual harassment policy. Go, ask their employees if a policy has stopped sexual harassment in the workplace.
Ensure all employees, especially upper-level employees attend anti-harassment workshop.
Another favorite response from the useless HR. Some people attend such workshops to accrue training hours, some for free food and the rest of them to get away for work. Only a handful attend the training to understand the problem and follow the letter and spirit of the policy. One particular attendee told me that he works outside no matter if it is raining, snowing or sunny. Attending an anti-harassment workshop is his way of getting away from the elements and enjoying a paid day-off. What will that person take away from such workshops? Nothing.
Ensure managers and supervisors understand their role in harassment prevention.
ROTFL. It is like asking the fox to guard the hen-house. Managers and supervisors are the worst offenders. HR gives them a free rein by not punishing or disciplining them.
Do not laugh at or encourage dirty jokes.
Yeah, right! People love dirty stuff; hence, gossiping is a rage. Folks will spend hours airing and talking about somebody else’s dirty laundry. By the way, what if it is a woman leader who is cracking a dirty joke at an office party? Should we correct her and incur her wrath? You do realize that people in high places have thin skin and big egos, right?
Enable anonymous reporting channel.
What good is an anonymous reporting channel if the management takes no action against the offending party or parties, which is mostly the case?
Make HR managers enforce sexual harassment policy.
Most sexual harassers are people with power—supervisors, managers and above. HR is there to protect them from the employees. HR rarely enforces those policies. Mostly, HR ignores those policies.
Prevent harassers from retaliating.
Really? If they do not fire harasser on the spot, they will retaliate against the person filing the complaint. That’s given. The harassment will go up a notch. The harasser will assign the crappiest project to the employee; the employee will have to work long hour and have to work during the weekends. The management may deny all PTO requests from the employee and methodically set the employee up for failure. Finally, the employee’s year-end review will be abysmally bad, and (s)he will have to undergo a performance improvement plan. And if all that doesn’t bury the complaint, the employee will be just let go.
Sexual harassment is a real issue in the corporate world and no sexual awareness training will fix it, in my opinion. Creeps are going to be creeps, predators are going to be predators, harassers are going to harass, and the useless HR will still be the useless HR.
Furthermore, I don’t think no number of workshops or policies or reporting channels will eliminate sexual harassment in the workplace, unless the management and HR implements the letter and spirit of those policies. Many companies will claim that their workplace is sexual harassment free. In all likelihood their HR is burying all reports of sexual harassment and giving everybody a clean chit.
It is my belief that the problem lies in execution of a well-defined anti-harassment policy. That’s where the majority of the companies fail. In order to not let the situation balloon out of control, HR does not punish or discipline the offender quickly enough or adequately enough. Most of the time the harassers go scot-free. Therein lies the problem. Execution. A company will never fire a top performing manager if there are allegations of sexual harassment against him. The company will not jeopardize a critical project or a multi-million dollar deal to discipline an errant, but a top-performing, manager. The HR will bury the matter for good, by firing the person or the persons making the allegation or reassigning them to another team. The manager will probably walk away with a gentle slap on the wrist.
By the by, I’ve heard that, in a parallel world, they take care of sexual harassers by landing, with great force, a baseball/cricket bat on their knee. In this world, I don’t think trying that particular solution would be a bad idea*.
So, what does one do?
Whatever you do, remember that HR is not your friend. You will rarely find any help from HR. The first response from them may be along the lines, “Are you sure you are not overreacting?” Even if you give them all the evidence, they will, likely, try to bury the matter. HR does not want any sexual harassment allegations see the light of the day. They want it gone, and they want the person making the allegations gone, too. Sexual harassment is a type of workplace abuse and to fight the abuser, you have to prepare for the fight to take the battle to him/her. You can read more about how to fight an abusive boss/manager in this article of ours.
You also need to realize that it is very difficult to prove a claim of sexual harassment. And the moment you allege sexual harassment and report about it, you become the target. Know that you may face retaliation. So, prepare to receive a lot of flak.
Steps to take
Nip it in the bud
First and foremost tell the harasser to stop his/her behavior. Don’t be meek or coy or try to play nice while addressing the situation. Be assertive. Say, No! Say, Stop it! And say it assertively. You may even remind the harasser that if the harassment does not stop immediately, you’ll escalate the matter and even take the matter to the HR. Yes, I do remember telling you that HR is useless. However, unless you report the harassment to the HR first, you may find it difficult to pursue the matter legally, later on. Of course, it depends if litigation is the route you would like to take or are forced to take eventually. If addressing the matter head on stops the harassments, then, that’s great. If not, you may want to pursue the steps below.
Write down when and where threats and offers of any quid-pro-quo sexual harassments are made. Note down the names of witnesses, if any. Use technology to your advantage. Nowadays, it is very easy to record conversations on a mobile phone surreptitiously. If possible, record the harassers’ threat or offer. Photograph or record videos of any physical evidence. Common sense dictates that you should keep all these vital records outside of your workplace; your home maybe.
Save evidences of any threats or offers made via emails or text messages. Also, save any photos, voicemails or any other evidence that can help you build your case. Immediately, contact the local police or law enforcement, if there is any sexual or physical assault. Save all your records outside of the workplace.
If you have a trustworthy colleague, confide the matter with him/her. You may want to find out if your colleague has faced sexual harassments or if they know of someone who has/had faced sexual harassments. Such information may help you build your case for the HR or the court.
After you have collected your evidence, report the matter to the HR. Report it in writing and not verbally. Leave a “paper” trail in such matters. The HR will probably call for a meeting after you bring this matter to their attention. Take copies of your evidence to that meeting. During the meeting, keep meeting minutes and share it with all the attendees of the meeting right after it is over.
N.B. In India, the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act makes it mandatory for employers to set up an Internal Complains Committee (ICC) to address cases of sexual harassment at work. However, it may be your local or corporate HR that liaises with ICC to facilitate the redressal of the grievance.
HR should now step in to stop the harassments. It may not fire the person or divulge to you the actions taken. However, the sexual harassment should stop. If it doesn’t, bring the matter HR’s attention again. If you face retaliation, report the matter to HR.
N.B. In the US, you can report the matter to Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), if you escalate the matter to the employer and they do not take any action on the complaint. Do note that you will have to report the matter within 180 days from the recent most date of harassment. However, in certain states you can file the complaint 300 days from the most recent incident of harassment.
Talk to an employment lawyer to determine if there is a scope for a civil lawsuit. Do it promptly though. If you wait too long, the statute of limitation may prevent you from pursuing a sexual harassment claim against your employer.
A lawyer may also help you in reaching a settlement with your employer without going through a lengthy and an expensive litigation.
Vote with your feet
It is all about your safety. No job is worth enough to compromise on one’s safety. Therefore, if your sexual harassment claim is going nowhere as the company isn’t doing anything, then the right thing to do is to leave the hostile work environment. Vote with your feet. Find a better place to work. You deserve better.
*I am not espousing violence against anyone. That comment was purely tongue in cheek.