When we imagine the extent of impact associated with an experience of sexual harassment, the deepest impact experienced by the aggrieved person would stem from the acts of sexual harassment experienced by them. Such incidents, depending on the severity, may cause trauma and associated feelings of fear, shame, helplessness, guilt, self-blame, anger and grief. However, the impact, unfortunately, is not only limited to the experience of sexual harassment but also gets extended and heightened by isolation experienced from teammates, loss of close relationships and the toxic conversations around the incidents.
In this article we will try and break this down, in a manner that may benefit all stakeholders responsible for the implementation of POSH Act at any workplace, so that this lens of sensitivity, objectivity and empathy may be employed during drafting and implementation of policy and responding to trauma that the complainant maybe experiencing.
Impact to self and wellbeing:
Trauma is the emotional, psychological and often even physical response that arises through experiencing an incident or a series of incidents, that are distressing, stressful or traumatic events occurring in the life of an individual. These events tend to overwhelm the individual and their capacity to respond resulting in shock, denial, extreme emotions that cause changes in the body, mind, and behaviour of the individual, thus impacting all aspects of their wellbeing.
Short-term fear, anxiety, shock, and anger/aggression are all normal trauma responses. Such intense, negatively charged emotions may fade over time, as the crisis subsides or when support systems activate. However, for some people, such feelings may remain long after the incident itself has ended.
This long term impact of trauma can be more complex, and individuals may develop behavioural changes and emotional disturbances, such as extreme anxiety, anger, sadness, survivor’s guilt, disassociation, the inability to feel pleasure (anhedonia), or PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). The body may be in a constant state of fear or threat and in this condition an individual may react strongly to even seemingly minor disturbances. The stress and overwhelm caused due to this experience may also impact sleep patterns and the body itself, impact personal and professional relationships, and lead to a distorted view of oneself, or diminished sense of self-worth and hopefulness.
This emotional experience arising out of such an incident may be different for different people, depending on an amalgamation of various factors, like the individual’s personality, coping skills, support systems or past life experiences, cultural context, the severity of the incident itself and the relationship shared with the perpetrator or the position they held in the individual’s life.
What this means is that the expression of this trauma may look different for different people. The overwhelm may lead to large emotional breakdowns, or a person may displace a blunted affect (reduced emotional responses /lack of any outward display of emotion).
Impact to reporting behaviour and expectations:
Owing to all the emotional impact to an individual arising out of incidents of sexual harassment, we note that people may not reach out for support or report the matter immediately. In fact, people tend to not report such behaviour and not even assertively respond expressing unease, in the first instance of discomfort or sexually inappropriate behaviour for the fear of being ridiculed, not believed or being asked to let go of the incident. This anticipation of other’s behaviour emerges from one’s experience of witnessing many subtle forms of behaviours where the acts of transgressions have been normalised. Statements like “Maybe they didn’t mean it?” “I’m used to his behaviour” “I’m overanalysing again” “No one else seemed to have an issue with it”, indicates that people may have built a tolerance toward such harmful behaviours, not even realising that this can be reported through the Law or policy.
Another reason, women have shared for taking time to escalate the behaviour, and struggling to assert themselves, is due to the uncertainty that the behaviour was intentional or if it may have been a one off instance, a misunderstanding and the hope that inappropriate behaviour is likely to cease and the person would ‘get the point’ if ignored. Mostly though, avoidance of the potential confrontation with the person causing discomfort seems linked to the fear of labelling and judgment and the ensuing damage to their professional reputation, not wanting to be seen as ‘oversensitive’, ‘troublemakers’, ‘problematic’, ‘unable to adjust’ or even ‘not having what it takes’.
Amidst all the emotions and thoughts that the complainant may be experiencing owing to the incident itself, the person has 3 months from the last act of sexual harassment within which she can file a complaint with the Internal Committee (IC). There may be challenges and apprehensions that arise in the mind of the person that make the process of coming forward to file a complaint itself seem extremely daunting. During this time, the person may try to weigh the value and cost of filing a complaint. Various factors may influence this decision, including the internalized bias and perceptions about safety, job security, loss of relationships, faith in management or the lack of it.
Another influencing factor may be the organisational environment itself. The manner in which people in leadership positions speak about sexual harassment (jokes, victim blaming, discriminatory behaviour, allowing inappropriate behaviour) and the lack of openness to escalation adds to the dilemma of the complainant on whether or not to file a complaint or call out inappropriate behaviour at the workplace.
Impact during Inquiry:
Once filed, the process itself may bring up situations where re-traumatization may take place.
Re-traumatization occurs when a person re-experiences a previously traumatic event, either consciously or unconsciously as if it is occurring in the present. This can be brought on by stressors that are similar to the environment or circumstance of the original trauma, such as certain smells, the time of the day, sounds, relationships, words and phrases, space, lighting, imagery, memory and even situations. Often re-traumatization may take place through the retelling and resharing of one’s experience as well. This may occur even if the person is seemingly recovering or adjusted otherwise.
During the process of inquiry, re-traumatization may occur through the manner in which meetings of the aggrieved with internal committee (IC) may proceed, the number of times a woman is asked to provide her statement, and even the manner in which questions may be asked as well, if reflecting bias or blame.
Now that we are moving back to hybrid or in-person inquiries, several complainants have shared their distress around facing the respondent for cross examination, as being in itself traumatizing and triggering to share physical space with them. Other expressed apprehension has included aspects relating to confidentiality and retaliation.
Impact post inquiry:
Even after the complaint is closed, while due process is completed, there may still be impact that can be foreseen to the experience of the complainant, particularly if confidentiality is breached. The speculation around what may have happened, team’s personal view on who is guilty and not guilty
and the resulting change in behaviour around the complainant even long after the complaint is closed can contribute to long term impact. If the incident of transgressions took place at the workplace, those spaces could be triggering for the complainant.
What do we need to keep in mind as IC members, employers and other stakeholders of POSH processes?
- It is essential to recognise the mental health impact that the complainant will be experiencing at each stage of the process
- This impact and distress may also be prevalent prior to initiating the process and some form of it may remain long after the process ends
- Be mindful not to allow bias of the ‘appropriate’ ways to experience or respond to a situation of sexual harassment to enter the process. Remember there is no one way to respond to trauma and traumatic events
- We need to remember that how each complainant chooses to respond to or deal with what they are experiencing comes from their own experiences and conditioning. We cannot judge anyone for choosing whether or not to file a complaint with the IC, or file an FIR, or any other way they choose to respond. We can only offer support within the roles we occupy. It would be very unfair of us to judge because we do not know what the complainant’s personal circumstances may be and what they are choosing to value.
- Care must be taken as managers, IC members, HR and employers to respond to speculation and gossip when in the context of sexual harassment complaints, all this on a no – name, confidential basis.
- We need to be empathetic towards this impact during the process of redressal and adopt that sensitivity throughout the process, not only while drafting recommendations and considering healthy measures but even while we draft summons, ask questions and deliberate internally