While there may be laws and organisational policies to protect women, most HR professionals are not trained or sensitised on how to deal with issues like harassment at work, writes Sadya Siddiqui
Samina knew that becoming a vice-president at such a young age in the competitive financial industry was never going to be easy. She had already had enough envious co-workers, but unwanted overtures and obscene comments by her boss made her job even tougher. Working on a critical project, and having worked her way up the corporate ladder, Samina had a lot to lose. She feared that reporting the harassment to HR would only make a confirmed enemy out of the boss, and put a dent on her credibility.
Then one day in a meeting the smug boss jokingly suggested that Samina sit on his lap if she couldn’t find a seat. The people at the meeting were mortified at this inappropriate behavior. Even though this did not stop the constant harassment, Samina was somewhat relived in the knowledge that others knew what she had been putting up with.
The Protection of Women Against Sexual Harassment at the Workplace Act which was signed by the President in 2011 is by far a major achievement for working women in Pakistan. Under this law the perpetrator may be punished with imprisonment, which may extend to three years or fine up to Rs500,000 or both. But the challenge with sexual harassment is that it is often under-reported for fear of stigma and retribution.
When Nida shared an incident about her supervisor’s behaviour with some of the female co-workers, she was shocked to learn that most of them had similar tales. There was only one problem, the supervisor was the recruitment manager, and all this had been happening within the HR department. Collectively the girls went to lodge a complaint with the head of HR. according to Nida, "from that point onwards things just went downhill".
The head of HR put the girls in a face-to-face confrontation with the harasser and even with the handful of women there providing testimony of the harassment meted out to them, no action was taken against him — even though the law requires that an inquiry committee should be set up to investigate the complaints.
There are far too many myths that are associated with sexual harassment: this happens to factory workers/ women in junior positions/ in male dominated functional areas/ when men come from a backward background/ in small companies. But in Nida's case the perpetrator was a young savvy professional from a leading business school and the organisation where she worked was a multinational.
While there may be laws and organisational policies to protect women, most HR professionals are not trained or sensitised on how deal with such issues. In a popular HR advice column published in a local newspaper, a woman wrote about her struggle to cope at her new job after being sexually abused by her previous employer. Instead of suggesting a legal recourse and therapy, the HR expert suggested looking on the bright side and simply move on.
When a harassment case is reported, the HR department does everything by the book. Having heard both sides of the story, the department believes that it has done its job. But this in fact unravels the real horror of the harassment. The culprit and the affected are back at their desks and now have to continue working together. The girl is now in more fear and the culprit is likely to be vengeful. The usual course of action suggested by HR is to shift the affected girl to another function or work area.
The ugly truth is once you are a victim of harassment at the workplace your work will be affected negatively. If you still have to work next to your harasser, work relations with the perpetrator will remain strained and chances are you will eventually quit that job.
Not all harassment stories have terrible endings. Samina's boss was eventually downsized and she went on to become a senior vice president. Few people know about the price she had to pay for the coveted position she now holds.
Like most women she refuses to share her story at large. But not Dr Fouzia Saeed, one of the key people who drafted the Sexual Harassment legislation. As she says in her book Sharks at workplace, "I had to be true to myself and I had to be honest to the working women of Pakistan". (Names have been changed)