Although some lawyers say that co-working companies aren’t responsible for handling sexual harassment in their premises — unless their own employees are involved — some of them are taking measures to deal with it.
Awareness about sexual harassment laws is generally low, according to lawyers.
Awfis, a co-working company with 55 centres across India, has roped in trainers to educate clients about the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act. These voluntary sessions are aimed at companies and startups that use Awfis spaces, which are supposed to have their own internal committees to deal with sexual harassment. Awfis CEO Amit Ramani said he took the step because of the MeToo movement.
With co-working offices, the issue becomes a bit tricky because they are not typical workplaces and there is no employer-employee relationship.
If either the complainant or the harasser is part of a company that’s taken co-working space, the matter can go to the company’s internal committee, as long as the harassment happened as part of work, said Sonal Mattoo, a member of the internal committee in several companies, including Bennett, Coleman and Co., the publisher of ET.
If an incident occurs in a common area like the pantry and there is no professional relationship involved between the parties, the matter will have to go to the police, she said. According to the law, only companies with 10 or more members need to have an internal committee.
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN FREELANCERS OR SMALLER TEAMS ARE INVOLVED?
If both parties are freelancers or self-employed, the person harassed “can raise a complaint with the local complaint committee or file a first information report with the local police station for sexual harassment,” said Jeevan Ballav Panda, a partner at Khaitan & Co., a law firm. “We think it’s best not to get involved as a company,” said Sudeep Singh, chief evangelist at Go-Work, a Gurgaon-based co-working company. “We do help, however, as we have links with local authorities like the police.”
Ramani of Awfis agreed and said the company’s community managers are trained on what to do if something comes up – like accessing CCTV footage and helping to file a police complaint. Both Ramani and Singh said no such incident had happened in their centres so far. Depending on the facts and circumstances, even a co-working space would be deemed to be a ‘workplace’ under the act, according to Radhika Biswajit Dubey, director (dispute resolution) and Richa Mohanty Rao, partner (employment law) at Cyril Amarchand Mangaldas, a law firm.
However, co-working spaces are similar to restaurants and cafes because they don’t have control over who comes and pays for the services provided, said Mattoo.
Yogesh Arora, cofounder of Gurgaon-based AltF Coworking, has dealt with two instances of sexual harassment and said the operations head usually takes care of these complaints. The company bans members found guilty of sexually harassing another member, after giving them notice. When there is no clear proof to back a complaint, the member is given a warning. If an additional complaint follows, then the member is banned, said Arora. However, Panda of Khaitan & Co. said this wasn’t deterrent enough from the perpetrator’s perspective.
He said such complaints should be dealt with by the internal committee of the company that the defendant belongs to because they can take action like firing an employee who is found guilty. Otherwise, a police complaint would be better as criminal proceedings could be initiated.
Co-working giant 91springboard’s HR head Sidharth Yadav said the company would try to increase awareness about workplace harassment in the months ahead by working with all stakeholders.
Bipin Taneja, general manager of New Delhi-based One Co.Work, said the company would investigate and take strict action against those violating its policies in case someone complained of sexual harassment.