Love, Sex and Dhokha at Workplace

Not all office romances have a fairy-tale ending like the Obamas. In some cases, love turns sour and complications arise. No wonder HR honchos dread co-workers falling for each other and then falling apart 

Illustration: Saahil Bhatia

On a rainy evening after work, a young woman in her 20s took a lift back to her rented apartment in Bengaluru with her team leader. He dropped her off and headed home. Somewhere over coffee and PowerPoint presentations, they started dating and fell in love. They kept it a secret because they were not sure how others in the team would react but, as in most romances, word got out.

One day, the team leader’s wife decided to surprise him by showing up at the office. He had never shared that he was married and that his wife lived in another city. Things unravelled fast from here. The woman felt her colleague had put her reputation at stake because by then she was already being subjected to ridicule and scrutiny.

She felt betrayed and after a lot of deliberation, she decided to put in a written complaint to human resource (HR) department saying that her team leader was a predator who had singled her out as she was young and lived alone, he had a ‘good time’ and had kept his marriage a secret from her. The firm set up an internal committee. The case fell under Prevention of Sexual Harassment (POSH) Act. After going through the complaint, the office, surprisingly, transferred her to another location.

Harassment is not limited to a particular gender. Take the case of the married senior government employee, who found himself subjected to unwelcome advances from a female colleague who worked as a peon in the department. Despite his indifference, she continued to send him suggestive texts and explicit content.

The woman, disgruntled at her overtures being rejected and reprimanded for neglecting her duties, filed a complaint under the POSH Act. The office Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) displayed bias, assuming the "sole testimony of women" as sufficient grounds for charges under POSH Act, while disregarding evidence of his victimisation. The case is still being heard. 

Love Blossoms and Also Withers 

Workplace romance is not such an uncommon phenomenon today. From casual flirting to committed relationships have become commonplace. Work cultures are now more open than ever and perceptions around relationships have changed. However, office romances are risky affairs. Balancing intimacy and commitment with impartiality and office dynamics is quite a tightrope.

The shared experience of a workplace, dearth of time to date after working hours, the comfort around spending nearly eight to 10 hours every day at work and the familiarity of seeing each other and navigating through work together have been cited as the top reasons that act as motivation for these relationships, according to Forbes Advisor. 

“We usually shift reporting of co-workers who disclose that they are dating. This is to ensure that the team is at ease knowing that personal relationships outside of work would not lead to favouritism among other colleagues,” says Neha Mathur, senior vice president, people success, Urban Company, a home-services provider. 

“While fostering a culture of diversity and inclusion is paramount, it is equally important to ensure that workplace relationships do not disrupt the professional atmosphere or lead to conflict of interest,” says Raina Singh, deputy director (HR), Lovely Professional University. 

Not all office romances end with “and they lived happily ever after”. Quite a few fizzle out and people move on. But the problem begins when either of the partners turns out to be a predator. 

The exact number of sexual harassments at the workplace in India is difficult to track. What is reported though is just the tip of the iceberg. Most victims do not report cases for fear of losing their jobs and the social stigma among other reasons. Add to this, the shame and ridicule that men and same-sex victims of sexual harassment invite. These numbers are not even captured by any data in India.  


Legal View

While delivering the judgment on Malabika Bhattacharjee vs Internal Complaints Committee, Vivekananda College and Others, the Calcutta High Court had addressed the need for gender-neutral laws on sexual harassment in India. Any individual from any gender may feel threatened and be a victim of harassment. Section 9 of the POSH Act, 2013 has nothing in it to suggest that a same-gender complaint can be prevented under the act, the court said.

Some global firms such as Tata Coffee, PepsiCo India, American Express and Mars maintain a gender-neutral approach to sexual harassment at the workplace, although in many instances it remains a woman-centric issue, says Shikha Mittal, founder of Delhi-based Be.artsy Awareness Experts. 

“To overcome any vagueness, some firms have incorporated provisions so that same-gender complaints are maintainable under the POSH Act,” says Nishant Kumar Srivastava, advocate-on-record, Supreme Court and founder, Actus Legal Associates and Advocates. 

He goes on to add that under the POSH Act, complaints must be submitted by the aggrieved party within 90 days and this is tenable for up to six months. This is because once this period lapses vital evidence related to the complaint could be lost.

“When complaints are made under the POSH Act, it is serious, and the victim must not feel that they are under pressure. Also, one cannot overlook the fact that consent may have been there for the relationship to begin with but over a period of time the relationship failed and led to angst and subsequent complaints. POSH ensures that evidence submitted is not old,” he says. 

In the recently introduced Bharatiya Nyaya Sanhita, Clause 69 clearly says that if any sexual relation is engaged in by using deceitful means which includes “inducement for, or false promise of employment or promotion, or marrying by suppressing identity” it is a punishable offence.

The earlier Section 375 of the Indian Penal Code, which dealt with rape, was more ambiguous with fraud and misrepresentation not being clearly spelt out. As a result, in most cases bail was granted liberally.

“Under Section 69 of Bharatiya Nyaya Sanhita, it becomes difficult for a man to prove that there was no ‘false promise’ involved in the relationship. Moreover, the time frame within which a woman may levy such allegations is also not set out clearly leaving men more vulnerable to such allegations especially in instances where these provisions maybe abused,” says Gurgaon-based documentary filmmaker and men’s rights activist Deepika Narayan Bhardwaj.

Late last year, a bill was introduced in the Rajya Sabha to amend Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Amendment Act, 2024 which proposes to tweak subsection 9(a); a period of one year from the date of the last incident would replace the existing “within a period of three months from the date of the incident”. It also proposes to omit Section 10 that deals with reconciliation under the POSH Act.

For sure, laws will empower victims to come forward. But a far more effective prevention would be at the organisational level. Putting in place a gender-neutral sexual harassment policy, regular training sessions, easy-to-follow reporting procedures and prompt response to complaints are some of the steps that can make workplaces safer.