The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition, and Redressal) Act, 2013 (POSH Act) is an important legislation that provides a legal framework to address the issue of sexual harassment at the workplace. It empowers women employees to file complaints of sexual harassment and seek redressal. It also creates a mechanism for organizations to take preventive measures to ensure a safe and respectful workplace for all employees. It applies to all workplaces, including the private and public sectors, and covers women of all ages, irrespective of their employment status.
Here are some key provisions of the POSH Act that every employee should know:
- Definition of Sexual Harassment: The Act defines sexual harassment as any unwelcome physical, verbal, or non-verbal conduct of a sexual nature that creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment, or interferes with a woman’s work performance. It can include unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favours, sexually explicit remarks or gestures, physical contact, or display of pornographic or sexually suggestive images.
- Definition of Workplace: It is essential for every employee to understand that under the POSH Act, workplace is not just restricted to the physical office, but goes much beyond that to include places like parking lots, canteen, transportation and accommodation provided by the office when employees are travelling for work purposes, electronic communications, off sites, virtual workplaces, etc.
- Gender of the Complainant and Respondent: Under the POSH Act, only females are protected which means that the aggrieved person can only be a female. Over time, this is changing with organizations having gender-neutral policies. However, the act does not define the gender of the Respondent i.e. the person against whom a complaint is filed. Hence, a woman can file a complaint of sexual harassment at workplace against a person of any gender, including a woman.
- Constitution of Internal Committee (IC): Every organization with ten or more employees is required to constitute an Internal Committee (IC) to deal with complaints of sexual harassment. The committee must have at least one external member who is a subject-matter expert and an independent person. If the organization does not have an IC due to having less than 10 employees or if the complaint is against the employer, then the aggrieved person can file a complaint with the Local Committee (LC).
- Procedure for Complaints: The Act lays down the procedure for filing a complaint of sexual harassment. It requires the complaint to be filed in writing within three months of the incident. The complainant cannot be filed anonymously. The IC is required to investigate the complaint and submit its report within 90 days of receiving the complaint.
- Protection against Retaliation: The Act provides protection to the complainant against any form of retaliation, including termination, demotion, or transfer. These interim relief options can be provided at the request of the Complainant and suo-motu by the IC.
- Develop and implement an anti-sexual harassment policy: Every organization must have a policy that outlines their commitment to preventing sexual harassment in the workplace. The policy should clearly define sexual harassment, provide guidelines for reporting incidents, and outline the procedures for investigating and addressing complaints.
- Penalties: The Act provides for penalties in case of non-compliance with its provisions. Non-compliance with the requirement to constitute an IC can attract a fine of up to Rs. 50,000. If the employer repeats the same offence, then it can also lead to cancellation of license or registration.
- Awareness and Training: The Act mandates organizations to conduct awareness programs on the issue of sexual harassment and the provisions of the Act. It also requires organizations to provide regular training to their employees on the issue of sexual harassment.
Apart from knowing the rights, it is important for the employees to also be aware of their responsibilities. Employees should be proactive in preventing sexual harassment in the workplace by creating a culture of respect and dignity. They should report any incidents of sexual harassment that they witness or experience and support their colleagues who file complaints. They should also participate in the awareness programs and training provided by their organization to understand the issue of sexual harassment better.