When there is an anonymous blog alleging sexual harassment in an online space, like in the case of The Viral Fever (TVF), what does it really mean for an employer in India, whether you are in an online or brick and mortar business? As so much has happened in this case, before we continue let’s try and put few basic pieces of the events, as reported, together.
The anonymous blog on the Medium first appeared on 12th March, 2017 (please note that this blog has now been suspended by the Medium but some parts of the blog have been reported here). As reported, in reply to this blog on 13th March, 2017, TVF was quick to state “We will leave no stone unturned to find the author of the article and bring them to severe justice for making such false allegations” and called it “ludicrous and defamatory” and “categorically false, baseless and unverified”. Thereafter, by 14th March, 2017 several other complaints followed including by a neighbor and a former classmate of his and statements like ‘He Slid His Hands Down My Back, From Neck to Waist’, ‘He Came From Behind and Held Me, Even When I Told Him to Move Away’ and ‘Arunabh Asked Me If I Would Strip Naked for Him’ were made. Complaints/statements also surfaced Facebook.
It seems by 15th March, 2017 there were over 50 complaints. But no one came forward, despite a plea by the Mumbai Police, to register a complaint. By 17th March, 2017 TVF stated that it needed to be given a chance and that “we did send out an instant response, which may have been a bit too quick & emotional. We recognize that we should have handled that response better”. Then a lawyer came forward and wanted the Police to register an FIR. By 22nd March, 2017, police had sent summons to Arunabh Kumar for questioning him. Thereafter an FIR has been filed against him.
And with this “celebrity” like complaint, we also saw various celebs share their experiences and state their opinions. While in one place Twinkle Khanna stated how she had been a victim of sexual harassment in the past, Sonakshi Sinha stated how women should not blame themselves for such issues. All in all, we can say that this anonymous complaint has drawn quite some attention and gone on to a place where neither the complainant nor TVF would have imagined.
So what is it that the Employer can do?
First of all, I believe we can safely say that no employer, whether you are in online or brick and mortar business, would want to be in the place where TVF is currently, whether it goes in the favour of TVF and/or Arunabh Kumar in the end or not.
As an employer, reading all the news about TVF, you may be getting chills and wondering what you would do if a complaint like this surfaced in your organization – to begin with – an anonymous complaint – and you have no idea who to meet, who to ask questions, where to start the inquiry from and how to inquire – given that even though it’s a “written complaint” (which is the requirement under law) – the writer is unknown.
While there is nothing in the law that allows such anonymous complaints, there is nothing that disallows them either. And going forward too with online spaces such as Youth ki Awaaz (running campaigns so that people could report their stories to them) and the Medium – it does not appear that it would be uncommon for employers to learn about sexual harassment cases in their own companies through online known or “anonymous” sources. Till the time the Law does not become clear on anonymous complaints, perhaps it is best for employers to take some preventive measures:
Starting with basics – Taking it seriously: TVF dismissed the allegations the very next day that the blog surfaced. It also did not have an internal complaints committee (ICC) at that time, so that the complainant could internally express her issues either with the Presiding Officer/Chairperson or any other member of the ICC.
Many times, as employers, we feel that our workplace is completely sanitized and there is no chance complaints of sexual harassment can surface in our organization. In our confidence, we do not even constitute an ICC, overlooking the mandatory provision under law which states that all employers having 10 or employees/workers/interns etc. must have an ICC to handle complaints of sexual harassment. When there is no ICC, victims facing sexual harassment in the organization, and others, who are aware that there ought to have been an ICC, lose faith in the organization and don’t understand who they can talk to, why there is no ICC and would anyone listen to them without any bias – as a result many times they just leave the organization, never to come back and some who leave with a lingering feeling of the injustice, sometimes seek to write online to just vent out frustration or may be to warn other women of the ‘atmosphere’.
Learning from this case, it is best that employers at least constitute an ICC to begin with – you may reduce chances of such anonymous complaints if you clearly come across as an organization that will understand and help their employee if they have an issue. Moreover, not having an ICC would lead to penalties under law and if complaints go to court, not having an ICC can lead to compensation as high as 1.28 crores, as given by a Madras High Court – you can read our blog on this case here.
Letting employees know you care: Have regular awareness sessions for your employees. You may wonder what awareness sessions would do. While you may feel that your organization is absolutely employee friendly, your employees may not think so. It’s important to understand why TVF like events are happening. Many people write anonymous posts online because they fear their employer would not help and they fear retaliation or loss of reputation etc.
Many times, you as the employer feel that having awareness sessions would scare your employees into believing that it is not a safe place to work or that people of different genders cannot work together or one should just stay “away” from the other. But actually, awareness sessions have quite the opposite effect. Through these sessions, assure them that you do not tolerate sexual harassment. Tell them that their complaint will be handled confidentially and there will be no retaliation. They would know their rights and responsibilities and they would also learn that you would understand their problem and help them out. It would ensure faith of your employees in you. Also spread the message that the sessions are conducted just to ensure healthy working environment and not to suggest people that they should not talk to each other. This could certainly reduce the number of anonymous complaints.
In spite of everything, you’re stuck? In case you already have an ICC and you conduct regular sessions and you still find posts being written, take a step back and try to see why this is happening. In the end you may discover it was a false complaint, written to tarnish your reputation, but don’t be quick to judge it. Try to first understand why the complaint has been filed that way – was there a problem in the way you conducted your sessions? Did the message not go across properly that you do not tolerate sexual harassment? Are other employees facing similar problems? Does anyone else have anything to say? Ask an ICC member to speak to some employees confidentially to understand if your organization does have a serious problem and that employees are not opening up. This is a serious learning from the TVF case.
The ‘Go-to’ people, the ICC: Not all employees write complaints. Many people even complain orally. Many times, if they are not heard properly, they go online in frustration. The ICC needs to be also equipped to understand how they can manage such complaints – be it oral or anonymous on social media platforms. In fact, one day when you see a complaint like this – an anonymous complaint – your ICC would be the first set of people you would want to talk to on how best this matter can be dealt with. Hence, they need to be trained on what they would need to do the minute there is a complaint like this. Moreover, training your ICC is also mandated by law.
Respond, Not React: Often when a complaint is reported/filed, especially against the founder, it is very likely for the organization to take it as a complaint against the organization questioning their values and practices at the organization. Yes, it is organization’s responsibility to create a safe workplace environment and have safeguard measures put in place for employees of either gender to work with dignity, empower them with knowledge of their rights and give an easy process for redressal for concerns and complaints, if any. Reacting to the complaint, the very next day, with statement“We will leave no stone unturned to find the author of the article and bring them to severe justice for making such false allegations” and called it “ludicrous and defamatory” and “categorically false, baseless and unverified”, not only disallows employees to voice their concerns but also instils fear and retaliation – perhaps the reason the concerned employee reported anonymously. Responding means thinking about the situation objectively, not perceiving it as an attack to the organization, could help the employer to take a neutral and empathetic stand to assure a fair inquiry into the complaint, similar to the response given by Phantom entertainment, “We (Reliance Entertainment and Phantom Films) have taken a hard stand, based on what we have heard and investigated. According to him and several others close to the development, Vikas Bahl, who had already stopped attending office, was formally told on March 28 to step down from his position. The decision needed to be taken because it was getting too much. There are not one, two or three but multiple victims. I was in the middle of a film shoot when I came to know about the first incident, and I had to stop my shoot and come to Mumbai… there is (after all) a young girl on whom an intoxicated Vikas forced himself while they were in Goa. He has behaved badly in the past as well but when this specific complaint came, we needed to act on it.”(you can read here).
ICC or LCC: Please note, even if complaint in TVF would have gone to ICC, if there was one, it would have eventually had to be handled by Local Complaints Committee(LCC), set up in each district by state government to ensure complaints are handled without any bias and fairly when the complaint is against the founder or employer of the organization.For that matter, complaint against one of the founders of Phantom Entertainment, as per law, needs to be handled by the LCC.
These steps are required not just for protecting your reputation but also to be compliant with law and to ensure that your employees feel safe when they get to work each morning. As Vala Afshar said, “We are not a team because we work together. We are a team because we respect, trust and care for each other.”
About the Authors
Shivangi Prasad (Partner, POSH at Work) holds a B.L.S.LL.B. Degree from the prestigious Government Law College, Mumbai. She is an advocate, specializing in corporate laws and laws related to women and child rights, including the law on sexual harassment of women at workplace.
Samriti Makkar Midha (Partner, POSH at Work) is a trained and practicing Psychologist with extensive experience of working with a diverse adult population on a breadth of personal and professional issues.
POSH at Work is an organization dedicated to working with organizations/institutions in creating a healthy and conducive working environment. It provides all round support to ensure compliance with the law against sexual harassment at workplace in letter and spirit. Government of India (through the Ministry of Women and Child Development) has empanelled POSH at Work to provide Training and Awareness Sessions on the Law of Sexual Harassment at Workplace.
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