Sexual harassment poses a significant threat to women's fundamental rights to equality and dignity. It not only perpetuates sex-based discrimination within the workplace but also creates hostile conditions that impede women’s ability to work. This blog aims to provide an overview of the Prevention of Sexual Harassment (POSH) Act, 2013 which focuses on prevention, prohibition and redressal of the issue. It explores the definition of sexual harassment under the POSH act and identifies what constitutes sexual harassment at workplace. The blog delves into the adverse effects of sexual harassment on women’s mental, physical and emotional well-being, emphasizing how its consequences invade every aspect of their lives, both professionally and personally. The blog highlights the significance of fostering a harassment-free culture to ensure women’s safety, well being and equal participation in the workforce. It elucidates the key provisions of the POSH act and the responsibilities employers are entrusted with under this legislation. Lastly, the blog examines the tangible impact of the POSH act on female employees, as it has provided them with a reporting and grievance redressal mechanism, thereby ensuring a
safer and more dignified work environment for them.
Keywords: workplace sexual harassment, POSH act provisions, employers’ responsibilities, impact on working women, harassment-free work environment, women empowerment.
OVERVIEW OF THE ACT:
The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition, and Redressal) Act, 2013, commonly referred to as the POSH Act, was passed in 2013, expanding and giving legal backing to the Vishaka Guidelines laid down by the Supreme Court in 1997 judgement. The act provides a clear definition of sexual harassment, establishes procedures for complaints and inquiries, and outlines the necessary actions to be taken in cases of sexual harassment. It aims to create safe and harassment-free working environments for women and foster workplace inclusivity and equality. For this, organizations are obligated to fulfill three crucial responsibilities, namely prevention, prohibition, and redressal. The act encompasses all kinds of employment, including both paid and voluntary positions, spanning across the public and private sectors and protects the rights of women working in or visiting any workplace, in any capacity.
CONCEPT OF SEXUAL HARASSMENT AT WORKPLACE:
The perception of sexual harassment has evolved over time, initially being considered as a part of employee misconduct or a potential criminal offense based on then-existing laws. However, a paradigm legal shift occurred after the Vishaka v. State of Rajasthan case, leading to the recognition of sexual harassment as an offense.
The POSH act defines & quote; Sexual Harassment & quote; as any one or more of the following unwelcome acts or behavior (whether directly or by implication), namely:
Physical contact or advances;
A demand or request for sexual favors;
Making sexually colored remarks;
Any other unwelcome physical, verbal, or non-verbal conduct of a sexual nature.
Workplace sexual harassment is a subjective experience, where the impact holds more
significance than the intent behind it. It often takes place within a hierarchical structure, where the oppressor has more powers than the one being oppressed. A woman may experience a single instance of sexual harassment or a series of incidents spanning over a period of time. In order to prevent sexual harassment at the workplace, it is imperative to recognize and differentiate between welcome and unwelcome sexual behavior.
In addition, the POSH act mentions five circumstances that may come under the ambit of sexual harassment, including those mentioned below if they occur or are present during an act or behavior of sexual harassment:
A promise of preferential treatment at work;
An implied or explicit threat of adverse treatment in the workplace;
An implied or explicit threat to sabotage a person’s present or future employment status;
Interference with work or creating an intimidating or offensive or hostile work environment;
Humiliating treatment which is likely to affect the female employee’s health or safety.
HOW SEXUAL HARASSMENT AT WORKPLACE IMPACTS WOMEN:
Sexual harassment in the workplace has far-reaching repercussions that extend far beyond the confines of the office walls. It is a highly devastating and demoralizing experience that not only infringes upon their constitutional and human rights, such as the right against discrimination (Article 15), right to practice any profession or to carry on any occupation (Article 19 (1) (g)) and the right to life and personal liberty (Article 21), but also undermines their sense of dignity, safety and equality. Here are some of the most significant ways in which sexual harassment affects women in the workplace:-
1. Career Impact: Victims of harassment may struggle to focus on their responsibilities and tasks due to the distress and discomfort caused by the incident, resulting in a poor work performance. It may lead to increased absenteeism as victims may need time to cope with the emotional damage or seek support, which can further result in pay loss. Such experiences can hamper career growth by impeding promotional opportunities, as women may face bias or retaliation from the harasser.
2. Emotional and Psychological Effects: Workplace Sexual harassment can inflict severe
emotional and psychological distress on women. It often leads to depression which leaves women feeling hopeless, unmotivated and emotionally drained. Victims may suffer from anxiety and panic attacks making them fearful and uneasy. They may struggle to sleep as intrusive thoughts grapple their mind. Women may experience traumatic stress and severe headaches. Concentration becomes a challenge, leading to reduced productivity and performance. Feelings of shame, guilt, and self-blame erode their self-esteem.
3. Social and Interpersonal Consequences: Aggrieved women may face retaliation from the perpetrator or his colleagues/friends, exacerbating feelings of vulnerability. Being subjected to gossip and scrutiny at work can erode their sense of dignity and privacy while peers’ ostracism can leave them feeling unsupported and isolated. Sometimes the severity of the situation may force victims to consider relocating to escape the toxic work environment. The incident weakens their support network leaving them without the necessary emotional and professional support. They may find difficulties in establishing and maintaining healthy intimate relationships, thereby negatively impacting the equation with their partners.
4. Impact on Personal Well-being: Victims often endure the distressing consequences of being objectified and publicly sexualized, reducing them to mere objects rather than valued professionals. Defamation and rumors can tarnish their character and reputation. In some cases, the psychological impact of harassment can manifest in the form of eating disorders, leading to unhealthy weight loss or gain. Feelings of betrayal and violation by someone they trusted or relied upon can be deeply traumatizing, shattering their faith in others and evoking anger and desire for justice. They may also feel powerless as their autonomy and agency being compromised. The trauma erodes their confidence and self-esteem, leading to a questioning of one’s self worth.
WHY IS HARASSMENT-FREE WORK CULTURE IMPORTANT FOR
It creates an environment where they can perform their duties without fear of being
subjected to inappropriate behavior or unwelcome advances, enabling them to thrive in their professional pursuits.
It ensures that women have equal opportunities to advance in their career based on their skills and talent rather their gender. This provides an equitable platform where women can compete with men on an equal level without any concerns of bias or harassment.
It allows women to concentrate on their work and contribute to organization to the best of their capabilities, thereby improving overall productivity and work performance.
Women prefer to work in organizations that acknowledge their efforts, treat them with dignity and value their opinions. A harassment-free work environment brings varied perspectives and fosters creativity in female employees, ultimately benefitting the organization.
It protects women from experiencing stress, anxiety, and trauma associated with harassment, promoting their mental well-being and creating a positive work environment for female employees.
KEY PROVISIONS OF THE POSH ACT IN THIS REGARD:
The POSH Act mandates that every employer must constitute an Internal Complaints
Committee (ICC) at each office or branch that has 10 or more employees to hear and resolve sexual harassment complaints. In addition to this, the act also includes a provision for the formation of Local Complaints Committee (LCC) at the district level for the purpose of addressing sexual harassment complaints in the unorganized sector and establishments where the ICC has not been formed due to having less than 10 employees or when the complaint is against the employer. The formation of a LCC is suitable in cases of sexual harassment of domestic workers or when the perpetrator is either the employer or a third party not employed by the company.
Procedure of Complaint:
The aggrieved woman does not have to necessarily lodge a complaint for the ICC to take action.
A woman reporting incidents of sexual harassment has the right to seek both civil and
The complaint must generally be filed within three months from the date of the incident, but the ICC has the authority to extend this time limit if it is convinced that circumstances were such that prevented the victim from filing the complaint earlier.
Assistance must be provided to a woman unable to file a written complaint, by the
concerned authorities, such as the Presiding Officer/ members of the Internal Complaints Committee, or the chairperson/members of the Local Complaints Committee.
If the aggrieved woman is physically or mentally incapable, deceased, or otherwise
unable to file a complaint, her legal successor, relative, friend, co-worker, an officer from the National Women’s Commission or State Women's Commission, or any person aware of the incident can file with her written consent.
The ICC can refer the complaint to the police or initiate an inquiry that must be
completed within 90 days. The ICC possesses powers similar to that of a civil court,
allowing it to summon and examine individuals under oath and request the disclosure and production of relevant documents.
After the inquiry, the ICC must submit a report of its findings to the employer within 10 days, accessible to both the aggrieved party and the respondent.
Conciliation as a means of settlement: The Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) has the option to initiate conciliation proceedings between the victim and the respondent, on her request, before initiating an inquiry. However, it is pertinent to note that monetary settlement cannot be used as a basis for conciliation.
Punishment: An employer can punish employee for indulging in sexual harassment in
accordance with the POSH Act by following the organization's service rules or, in the absence of such rules, taking disciplinary actions such as written apology, warning,
termination, counseling, community service, and reducing wages to compensate the
Compensation: The compensation is determined based on five aspects:
Pain, trauma, suffering and emotional distress caused to the victim;
loss in career opportunity;
treatment expenses incurred by the aggrieved woman;
income and financial status of the alleged perpetrator; and
the feasibility of lump sum or installment payments.
In case, the respondent fails to pay the decided sum, the ICC would forward the order of recovery to the concerned District Officer.
Interim Relief: The LCC or ICC can suggest interim measures to the employer, such as
relocating the aggrieved woman or the perpetrator, granting the victim an additional 3
months of leave, and appointing someone else to handle her performance reporting or
RESPONSIBILITIES AND OBLIGATIONS OF EMPLOYERS:
Employers need to display a notice within the organization outlining the details of the protection provided to female employees against sexual harassment.
Employers must follow a zero-tolerance policy towards sexual harassment in the workplace and ensure that the individuals involved in an inquiry, including the complainant and witnesses, are not intimidated or victimized.
Employers must foster gender-sensitive workplace and clearly communicate the
repercussions of engaging in behavior that constitutes sexual harassment.
Employers must offer the necessary support and assistance to the complainants and make appropriate arrangements for their work in case a transfer is required.
Employers must initiate legal action against perpetrators who treat female employees
inappropriately as per IPC or any other relevant law.
Employers must organize periodic training workshops and awareness programs to educate employees and ICC members about workplace sexual harassment issues and their consequences.
Employers must provide a list of all the ICC members along with their contact information.
HOW HAS POSH ACT IMPACTED WORKING WOMEN:
The POSH act has raised awareness about the issue of sexual harassment at workplace. Women are now better aware of their rights, empowering them to speak up against such incidents.
The act has provided women with a formalized platform to report the instances of sexual harassment at work and complaint redressal procedure, enabling them to seek justice and hold perpetrators answerable for their actions.
The implementation of the POSH act has acted as a deterrent, since organizations are now mandated to have preventive measures and policies in place to address and prevent sexual harassment. This has helped in creating a culture of zero tolerance towards such behavior, making workplaces safer and more supportive for women.
The act has brought about fundamental shift in people’s mentality by challenging the notion that sexual harassment is acceptable. This has promoted gender equality and respect for all employees in the workplace.
The POSH Act provides support and assistance to women who have been the victims of sexual harassment, ensuring they are not victimized further. It provides them with necessary resources like counseling and legal support for their recovery and rehabilitation.
Sexual Harassment is a pervasive evil that casts a dark shadow on both professional and personal lives of women. Creating a harassment-free work culture is essential for empowering women, boosting their confidence and enabling them to thrive in their careers. The POSH act serves as a ray of hope for working women, offering them protection against sexual harassment and fostering a secure and equitable work environment. It entrusts employers with the obligation to prevent and address such incidents. The POSH act has provided a platform to aggrieved women to voice their concerns and seek justice. Overall, it sends a powerful message that gender
equality and respect should be upheld in all arenas of life.
1. What is sexual harassment at workplace?
It refers to any unwelcome or inappropriate behavior of a sexual nature that creates a hostile and intimidating work environment for women. It encompasses any action or gesture, directly or indirectly, with the intent to outrage the modesty of a woman employee.
2. How sexual harassment at workplace impacts women?
It has a profound and devastating impact on women’s physical, mental and emotional well being, causing disruptions in their professional and personal lives. It can lead to depression, anxiety, reduced productivity, career stagnation, low self-esteem, loss of trust, weakened support network, and in extreme cases, it may compel women to quit their jobs altogether.
3. Why is harassment-free work environment important for women?
In order to achieve inclusive growth, women need to feel secure at work, which will enhance their participation in the workplace. A harassment-free culture promotes a safer and conducive work environment, enabling women to perform their tasks without the fear of discrimination or retaliation.
4. How has POSH act impacted women?
This act has empowered female employees to stand up for their rights and assert their autonomy in the workplace. It has raised awareness regarding sexual harassment at workplace, encouraged reporting of such incidents and provides them with a legal
mechanism for redressal.
5. Does POSH act provide protection against sexual harassment only to women working in workplace?
No, it also encompasses women visiting any workplace, in any capacity.