How to Defend False Charge of Sexual Harassment at Work Place
False Sexual Harassment at Work Place charges has now become a routine. However, there is lack of material available how to defend oneself from such false claims. The situation for men is similar to when one facing false dowry harassment charges under 498A since this too is a gender-biased law. The act is named as “The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act”, thus an aggrieved as per law is a woman and woman only as it refuses to recognize that even a man can be sexually harassed at workplace. It covers every workplace, including a dwelling place or house and under its definition of aggrieved are women working as domestic workers, daily wagers, temporary or permanent, full-time or part-time, as well as volunteers.
Most men have their first brush with law at this juncture and have no prior experience of facing any kind of enquiry. Result is hot-headedness, anger, frustration and at some times retaliation. All these things make matter messier and difficult to decipher. The more agitated one is, the less likely the other person, in this case, members of complaint committee, likely to listen and believe your side of story.
As what I always say, one should vehemently defend himself against false claims, but in a coherent manner as your professional life depends on the same. Here are some of the things which anyone can do when faced with such situations.
- Know the company policy. All companies with more than 10 employees is supposed to have a Sexual Harassment Policy and a working ICC (Internal Complaints Committee) with an external member. You should be aware of your company’s Sexual Harassment Policy even otherwise. However, when there are allegations against you, you must read the policy again as to what constitutes Sexual Harassment as per your company’s policy and then check with the complaint, whether the same does make a case or not. In a media company where F word is used quite liberally by all and sundry, mere usage of an F word may not be a big offence, however in another company it could be a terrible one.
- You need to know basic law around Sexual harassment like for every organization of 10 or more employees, there should be an Internal Complaints Committee. Such committee should be of atleast 3 members, one is presiding officer and one external member. There should be atleast half or more women members. However, if the complaint is made against the head of the company/ employer, ICC cannot inquire the case and the same is transferred to Local Complaints Committee (LCC), which is formed at District Level.
- Sexual Harassment is defined as any unwelcome sexually determined behavior (whether directly or by implication) such as Physical contact and advances, demand or request for sexual favors, sexually colored remarks, showing pornography, any other unwelcome physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of sexual nature.
- Remain in the confines of the complaint and alleged date and instances. We human beings have a tendency to see the complaint through the prism of whole relationship with that person. That is a wrong approach while defending. You have been charged with a specific instance and you only have to defend the same. If there had been other altercations/ disputes they are not in the realm of investigation.
- Complaint can be made within 90 days of the last alleged incident and the inquiry has to be completed in 90 days also. Incase of a malicious complaint including providing false evidence, the complaint committee may take action against the woman as per the act. The magnitude of punishment is determined as the employee handbook/service rules.
- Make a honest written account of things that happened on that particular date and time. It is not necessary that you would provide the complete written account to the ICC, but the same would keep you rooted and you can refer to these notes while deposing in front of ICC. If need be the same could be your written response as well, but for that one has to look at few other things as well.
- Look for Alibi/ Witnesses. For this one has to go back in his own history. Check your schedules/ meetings/ trips. Check your mails of that day. May be you were in a meeting at that particular time. Maybe you had someone present at the same time. In one of the cases that I was consulted on, the person could not come up with anything when a client mail reminded him of a lunch he took with the client some 20KM away from the alleged place of incident. He had billed the same on his company credit card of approx same time, so that saved his skin.
- Use your previous track record in the company. If one is accused of something that one knows he never did and he has had a clean personal and professional life it would be pitted against the conduct of the complainant. People who are prone to misuse the law have a tendency to take undue advantages at various stages. Though I won’t advise anyone to go for looking into any skeletons in someone’s cupboard, but if the same is apparent enough, why not take advantage of it.
- Avoid retaliation at all costs. Sometimes the post facto reactions are taken as a proof of something which one has done in the past. Human beings are emotional creatures and when we are angry and frustrated we may make mistakes and make our case worse to handle.
- If a mediation/ settlement is offered, and it seems that innocuous comment has been taken otherwise, show regret and move on. Just make sure that one does not repeat the behaviour quite often as the accuser might be overly sensitive person. Please note that as per the law of the land, money can not be the basis of settlement and never ever offer any money nor accept any monetary settlement. And also remember that no mediation/ settlement shall be done on a malicious complaints ever. That would just embolden the false accuser and others to repeat the behaviour.
If all above fails, book a consultation with a lawyer. You may be on your way out of the company and you should be aware of your rights as you have to protect your reputation for your next job at least. Resigning should be the last resort but it is better to move out that to commit a professional hara-kiri.
Endnote: During the ICC trainings that I conduct for my other entity TRIPAKSHA people ask me why I put such a great concern about false allegations of Sexual Harassment at Workplace. My response is that the stakes are very high. Potential job loss is one aspect, the stress, frustration and adverse impact on family life can be huge. The embarrassment of being alleged as a molester (Most common people think that is Sexual Harassment) can undermine even the strongest of the individuals.