Are employees in the PR business vulnerable to harassment?

The Tarun Tejpal incident has cast a shadow over the entire communications business and questions are being raised about the kind of environment that could develop.

On the one hand PR is a woman friendly profession, where females are present in large numbers. On the other hand, women can be vulnerable to harassment from multiple areas: clients, the media and even at the office. The fact that the PR function is sometimes not well understood can leave women wide open to harassment. Few wish to speak openly about this.

When we started to request for comments on this issue, it was disappointing to note that few professionals, including senior staff were willing to stand up and speak out on what needs to be done.

Are women in the PR business vulnerable to harassment?

Tarunjeet Rattan, Managing Partner at Nucleus PR, answers the question of whether women in the PR business are vulnerable to harassment, with an unequivocal: "Yes, they are. What with having to deal with multiple stakeholders – seniors, colleagues, media, clients, there is always a risk and inherent vulnerability to the people in our profession especially since the PR guys are expected to work miracles in every situation and make sure everyone gets everything and be happy!"

Nitin Mantri, CEO and Business Partner at Avian Media agrees that: “Like any other service sector, the public relations business is also susceptible to incidents of sexual harassment. However, being a woman-dominated sector, incidents of harassment in the workplace are rare. Most of the harassment takes place when employees step out of the comfort of their office to meet people. Employees often face uncomfortable situations during such interactions, which have to be dealt with firmly.”

A young PR professional who has worked in-house and prefers not be named says that: “I have been in PR for quite a few years and I have never witnessed any journalist or PR professional making advances towards me. There is a very thin line between the two; a simple cup of coffee can be perceived on a friendly note or to make strong connections and influence. Judge!”

The young professional points out that it’s up to you take a call and speak up if a line has been crossed: “Many ask you out for coffee, lunch or dinner but there is no harm in it. It’s good to network but if they say something you may not like, point it out be it a journalist or fellow PR professional. Staying quiet is wrong.”

Vishaka Guidelines against Sexual Harassment at Workplace

The Vishaka Guidelines against sexual harassment at the workplace, issued by the Supreme Court of India are very clear. According to the guidelines, sexual harassment includes such unwelcome sexually determined behaviour (whether directly or by implication) as:  Physical contact and advances; demand or request for sexual favours; sexually coloured remarks; showing pornography or any other unwelcome physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of sexual nature.

The guidelines also say that offices need to have a complaint mechanism, whether or not such conduct constitutes an offence under law or a breach of the service rules. The complaint mechanism should be adequate to provide, where necessary, a Complaints Committee, a special counsellor or other support services, including the maintenance of confidentiality.

The guidelines state that the Complaints Committee should be headed by a woman and no less than half of its members should also be female. Further, to prevent the possibility of any undue pressure or influence from senior levels, such Complaints Committees should involve a third party, either NGO or another body who is familiar with the issue of sexual harassment.

Nitin Mantri says that: “As per the Vishakha guidelines, offices with more than 10 employees should have a committee to deal with sexual offences. PR agencies should, therefore, not wait for such incidents to happen before setting up a committee. If the majority of your employees are women, then it is the agency's duty to put in place guidelines prescribed by the court of law. The presence of such a committee will instil in women employees a sense of trust towards the agency and make them feel safe. It will also deter male employees from crossing the line.”

“The key to tackling sexual offences is action without delay as any sort of procrastination will worsen the situation. Hence, all PR agencies should set up a committee, headed by a woman employee and two outsiders from an NGO or gender equality groups. A simple step like this can go a long way in handling unfortunate incidents.”

Creating the correct office environment

Tarunjeet Rattan, says: “These guidelines are good enough to start with. But always remember that it needs to be handled with a great deal of care, sensitivity and an appropriate amount of rage!”

Tarunjeet says that it also important to: “Encourage a healthy work culture and an atmosphere of safety. It is very important because only then will an employee be able to perform to their best potential. “

She adds that employers must: “Ensure that every new employee who joins reads and understands these policies on their first day. Have it in their welcome kit and induction session. And enforce these policies with an appropriate amount of strictness."

Lastly Tarunjeet says that: “It is very important that the team also knows that you mean business. Encourage them to bring to your notice any inappropriate behaviour. And take it a step further and do sessions on how to handle certain situations and what to do in such circumstances.”

Nitin Mantri says that: “Agencies should encourage a culture of equality. When evaluating performance, the stress should be only on merit. This immediately rules out instances of favouritism. Though we encourage an open working atmosphere, there should be a fine line between being over-friendly and warm. Also, the management should make sure that an aggrieved woman can approach them without fear of being rebuffed, even though the offender may be an important person within or outside the agency. That freedom should always be there. Redress, as I mentioned earlier, should be quick and fair.”

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