Organisations with 10 or more employees are required under the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 or the PoSH Act to set up an Internal Committee or IC to investigate complaints of sexual harassment at the workplace.
The Internal Committee (IC) takes up an important role of inquiring into complaints of sexual harassment, with powers equivalent to the Civil Court in India.
To ensure that this power is used effectively, the PoSH Act 2013 lays down that the IC shall provide equal rights to both parties to be heard and shall follow the principles of natural justice, highlighting the need to avoid any bias or conflict of interest in the process of inquiry. Bias in the process of the inquiry not only defeats the purpose of the law but may also create legal liabilities.
Bias and conflict of interest need to be actively avoided during the course of inquiries. However, to most effectively avoid this, it is important to ensure that at every step, conscious effort is taken even before a complaint of sexual harassment is filed.
In this two part series, we will explore how an IC can avoid bias and conflict of interest in their inquiry process. In part one, the discussion will revolve around prevention bias and conflict of interest during the formation of the Internal Committee and equipping IC members to recognise and work around their unconscious biases.
FORMING A BIAS-FREE INTERNAL COMMITTEE
When forming the Internal Committee, ensure that employees who have an understanding of sexual harassment and gender are chosen to be a part of the Internal Committee and an external member is appointed to the IC to avoid bias.
To know more about forming a bias-free Internal Committee, read here.
Avoiding bias as Internal Committee members
Effective training of employees and Internal Committee members creates a strong foundation for conducting an inquiry. During training, it is important that internal committee members discuss concepts of bias and conflict of interest. Setting up processes where the IC members can listen to both parties and follow the principles of natural justice will ensure that they have the understanding of how to conduct a fair and impartial inquiry.
Unconscious biases often can be hard to identify which is where training can play an important role. It is also important for internal committee members to individually reflect upon their unconscious biases. These can show up as certain learned assumptions, beliefs or attitudes that may hinder our ability to conduct inquiries in an impartial manner. An understanding of what these might be and how to circumvent them can ensure that an IC member conducts a fair and impartial inquiry process focusing on the facts of the case alone.
For example, the myth of the “perfect victim” who is generally a woman, expects that survivors of sexual harassment are docile and traumatised by the incident but also have all the evidence, reports perfectly in time and has a perfect memory. Due to the perpetuation of this myth, we may have biases about the complaint’s genuineness if we come across someone who is bold and confident. This kind of assumption can impact an IC member’s ability to stay unbiased during the inquiry process.
Did you know that your IC can sometimes have a conflict of interest during a case? Find out more on how that happens in Part 2.
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