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Be A Big Boy - Melissa Arulappan on workplace harassment and safe work environments

About a decade or so ago, when a senior CorpComm professional in India quit his job, leaving behind a LinkedIn post highlighting the harassment he faced at work, the CorpComm community was polarised. Some reached out to him to give him moral and emotional support and help him get back on his feet. Others stayed away, fearing an association with him would taint them. It took a few years for our fraternity member to find a job again. Many organisations did not want to onboard whom they perceived as a ‘troublemaker’.

Then about six to eight months ago, I began to hear more conversations about toxic work environments. Most were from my CorpComm fraternity (my frequent circle of interaction), a couple from other corporate executives and one from a journalist. 

There was no pattern – men and women were being equally harassed by men and women. The only pattern that emerged was that the victims were contemplating quitting their jobs if they had not already done so. 

I tried hard to put a finger on what was happening and why, until a discussion thread in one of our CorpComm WhatsApp groups prompted me to run a survey for corporate communication professionals on workplace harassment and safe work environments.

The day I sent out the survey, I did a check-in a little after noon to see what early indicators were looking like. I was shocked! After all, this was a community that developed messaging around organisation work culture, submitted awards for best workplaces, identified speaking engagements for their spokespersons on creating winning work environments. Yet their own work lives were no mirror to the press releases they issued or corporate statements they wrote about on their websites.

96% of the 190+ corporate communication professionals who responded to my survey faced harassment at their workplaces, either now or in the past.
The forms of harassment varied with most reporting either psychological harassment (running one down, taking credit for one’s work, etc), power harassment (excessive demands, eating into one’s personal time, etc) and personal harassment (taunts, hurtful comments, slurs, etc). Sexual harassment was much lower, perhaps explained by the fact that this was a mixed-gender group responding.


But how did CorpComm professionals respond to the harassment they faced?

“Be a big boy” a fellow communicator was told when he tried speaking to someone externally about it, despite the fact that the harassment he faced had started to take its toll on his physical and mental health, effects of which he carries with him even to this day. 

While some victims escalated the issue either officially or unofficially within their organisations, the overarching response to harassment at the workplace was to quit one’s job, almost 60% of whom had done so. 

“I was forcefully put under a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP), despite performing well,” said one respondent. “I was asked to either undergo the PIP process or quit…I chose the latter to avoid mental harassment.”

Safeguarding one’s mental health was the primary reason why most respondents (61%) chose to quit or not escalate facing workplace harassment within their organisations. 

“I was forced into resigning, and since I was pregnant and not in a position to fight back, I had to resign,” said a respondent. Fear of retaliation was also a big concern with many sharing that the perpetrator was often a senior and ‘protected’ by the organisation. 

Surprisingly, a third of respondents stated their organisations had no policy to cover workplace harassment. 

A respondent said, “I found that a lot of people in management could not even grasp the seriousness and impact of such issues, and policies covered only sexual harassment.” This led to a majority of respondents (almost 60%) saying that harassment policies were skewed towards women, a result of a lack of policies beyond POSH in their organisations.


I also wondered if workplace harassment had increased during the pandemic and a third felt it had, primarily because of the behaviours the fear of losing one’s job had created, the blurring of boundaries between personal and professional time in a work-from-home environment, and the fact there were no work from home policies in most organisations. Read some of the responses below.

Quotes from Respondents

If workplace harassment is so pervasive and the best way out for most appears to be to quit than face retaliation or experience mental trauma, what do respondents believe needs to be done? 

Manager sensitisation programmes were most recommended, not surprising given many respondents spoke about the cover-up by their managers when reporting cases. 

“They seemed to ignore it. And didn't realise it was such a big issue,” or “I was told to brush it under the carpet by a General Manager.” 

Better policies with punitive action and more training were also called for while highlighting that policies should apply to all and not just to women. A common comment running across was that senior managers were above the law and protected by the management.

Other suggestions were bringing in in-house counsellors, creating in-house support groups, compulsory trauma awareness training, and using external investigation teams. “There should be an independent committee to address these issues and they should be empowered to take action against leadership if need be. Also, there should be some anonymity in the process to protect a person from potential retaliation,” said one respondent while another said, “Policies are supposed to be equitable, but in reality, it is highly skewed towards supporting women.”

The question now is what are we going to do about it? Organisations are losing out on some of the best corporate communication minds in the industry, minds that are dealing with mental and emotional trauma as a result of workplace harassment. Perhaps the answer lies in a respondent’s comment:

"We need government intervention in terms of laws for the corporate workforce to at least bring awareness and acknowledgement that workplace harassment beyond sexual harassment is a reality. A happy India Inc. is not a fancy thing but a basic need for the tribe to flourish.”

Note:

193 corporate communication professionals across India, both men and women, participated in this survey administered through an online tool. The questionnaire allowed for multiple responses to some questions and open-ended comments as well.

Reproduced with permission from Melissa Arulappan, a senior CorpComm professional

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