Workplace Sexual Harassment and the Role of Board

After years of efforts the term sexual harassment is now recognized as one of the important governance issues by companies. They are now are considering the steps they must take to manage the risk and are shifting their focus from response to prevention and the role of Board in imbibing this culture of prevention is extremely critical.

Recently, Australia introduced Anti-Discrimination and Human Rights Legislation Amendment (Respect at Work) Bill, 2022 with 55 essential recommendations imposing a positive duty on employers to take reasonable and proportionate measures to eliminate workplace sexual harassment, victimisation and sex discrimination. Further considering that the executive and non-executive directors are directly accountable for the culture of organizations, a core recommendation for the board is to be trained on good governance in relation to gender equality and sexual harassment. Truly, the Boards are ultimately accountable for the information they receive and role modelling positive behaviours within organisations. It is noteworthy that the Respect at Work bill found that often perpetrators of workplace sexual harassment are not appropriately disciplined and often being protected as “ a strong performer” or “very profitable employee”. These are all nothing but a sign of unethical and poor organizational culture where the employees are not able to talk freely about their concerns. Perhaps the most vital is that if staff don’t feel safe to speak up when they witness something they are uncomfortable with, be that unethical, risky or illegal conduct, issues with safety practices, or behaviour concerns, such as sexual harassment, then productivity and wellbeing decreases, and business risk increases. A culture that is inclusive and values its employees’ contributions, is also a culture in which staff are safe to speak up about behaviour and conduct.

Very often due to the lack of transparency in the organizational responses and the habit of taking things way to lightly prevents employees from coming forward and reporting. But at the same time, in a culture where employees are believed, and encouraged to speak up, measuring the number of incidents and communicating transparently about any actions taken to redress can build employee confidence and safety.

How can directors drive prevention and build a safety culture in organizations?

We know that sexual harassment is all pervasive and it can happen to anyone irrespective of the seniority, age and experience. Board being the sole responsibility to foster and encourage the safety culture, here are few tips that can help boards to realign their thinking process and implement a healthy organizational culture:

  • Develop a separate team in addition to the mandatory Internal Committee (required to be constituted under the POSSH Act, 2013) to keep a regular check on the workplace culture and report concerns on immediate basis;
  • On regular intervals review concerns and practicing that are found against workplace culture and code of conduct of the organization;
  • On regular intervals review the number of sexual harassment claims made, including the number closed due to ‘inconclusive evidence’;
  • Regularly interact with employee and make them comfortable to speak up about their concerns;
  • Positively portray appropriate behaviours within and outside organisations, whether physically or virtually;
  • Implementation of proactive measures and best practices is the key

In addition to the aforementioned, what if the board members are themselves involved in any cases of sexual harassment?

The actions of board members should be covered by the anti-sexual policies of organizations, and the responsible Internal Committee should acquaint board members with the requirements of the policies and their importance to the organization. Complaints by employees or any stakeholders should be investigated and addressed promptly, objectively and consistently, regardless of whether the complainant is willing to "write up a complaint." Finally, board members who violate the policies must be subject to corrective action, just like employees irrespective of their hierarchical position.

Category: Family Business
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