Featured image courtesy Beyond Borders

Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared on the blog Cloud9onearth. We are publishing an edited version which preserves the victim’s own testimony, as sexual harassment in the workplace is an important issue which is often underreported. A 2014 report by the Ministry of Women and Child Affairs noted “sexual harassment in the workplace is… insidious and brings into play unequal patriarchal power relations that are not dealt with in any seriousness either in the public sector or in the private sector.” As such, harassment on the street and in the workplace is perceived as ‘a normal occurrence’ the report found. Currently, the Human Rights Commission has developed guidelines for state sector institutions, and the International Labour Organisation and the Employers’ Federation of Ceylon have developed a Code of Conduct and guidelines, but the Ministry’s own report acknowledges that “the extent such policies are being instituted and implemented within the state and private sectors are unclear.”

Sexual Harassment in the work place is seen as a common occurrence. Compounding the issue is the fact that when sexual harassment victims do report such instances, they do not have a fair channel that would take definitive action on such reports.

This is the case with Mihiri de Silva, a Head of Design who underwent sexual harassment at a reputed business organisation in Sri Lanka.

Though she stood for her rights, and filed a complaint with the company, she was ignored and ultimately forced to quit her job and start anew. In this interview, she hopes to elaborate why it’s important to report instances of sexual harassment and stand up for your rights, to give other women hope.

Q: What was your initial reaction to this incident?

A: I tried to play it down as he first made a “pass” at me when he was intoxicated. Yet I was also taken aback as my friendship with him dated back to before he started working at this company. He had never made such indications back then. At the time, I thought if I ignored it, he would never remember that he said or did such a thing in his state.

Q: What action did you take to address this issue, and how was it received?

A: As he was a friend as well as a work mate, I made light of the incident and tried to convey to him that I was not interested in having anything more than a professional relationship with him. However he didn’t accept this and said “so many do it”. I had to remind him that he had a family, to which he immediately responded saying he could always “get out of it.” Over time, he kept saying how much he liked me, and wanted to be in a relationship with me. I reiterated that it wouldn’t happen, ever.

I reached out to the company Human Resources Director initially, as my boss was making working with him very uncomfortable and unreasonable.The HR Director, seemed very surprised of this overture and said he would “resolve it” and to “keep it quiet” until he did the needful – i.e. speak with my superior. He even asked me not to speak to certain Directors as they may “speak out of turn and embarrass him”.

However, nothing ever resulted from that conversation and I doubt he really took my complaint seriously, as I feel there was a “boy code” operating at that level.

As the HR Director took no action, I then spoke with our Managing Director who was shocked on hearing this revelation and asked me not to make any rash decisions. He said he would attend to this as soon as he returned from an overseas trip the next day. However my conversation with him seemed to have fallen between the cracks of the airport floor tiles after his trip.

As a final resort, I wrote to the Chairman of the company, well advised by my parents along with friends in the legal field as I was just an individual going up against a large company making such an allegation. In detail I wrote as to why I was quitting a well loved job, that they offered me. I mentioned that I was curtailing my career for something I hadn’t done or planned.

 Excerpts of my final letter written to the Company Chairman 

Perhaps you are aware that my contract was originally intended to be from period [redacted] . However, I have been compelled to curtail this due to the inappropriate and uncomfortable working environment my CEO has created for me. I have always loved my work, and passion was an essential component of my work in my entire Design career at this company and elsewhere.Sadly it came to a point that I no longer enjoyed working for my CEO due to my being a woman who refused to fall prey to the inappropriate advances made by him. This unfortunate turn of events commenced in September; I do not think it appropriate to bring all the sordid details that transpired to your attention but suffice it to be said that the inappropriate advances manifested themselves verbally, physically, and by SMS at work.
What really shattered my faith is the fact that I tried to meet with you to speak to you of this after having brought this to the attention of both the Human Resources Department and the Managing Director. It only ended up with the realisation that “might is right” and eventually leaving me to deal with this most delicate situation at work by myself. I am leaving a job I loved and a company I love dearly, as a result.

Q: What made you finally decide to quit?

A: I soon realised my boss was making good on what he had told me, “If you don’t want to have a relationship with me because we work together, then I will make your life hard until you want to leave this job and once you leave, I will pursue you” .

He willfully started excluding me at high level meetings and decisions that I had been a core part of before. He left me out of the loop in almost every work related event. At one point I realised this job wasn’t worth the effort given the way I was being treated and decided to throw in the towel.

I had no back up plans but I hated what I was going through for 5 days of the week, from 9 am – 5pm.

However I also knew I was financially more secure and qualified than many others in order to make such a decision, which made it easier to walk out. Although, looking back, I should have not done this for the sake of others who did not have this advantage.

Q: How did this experience impact your life afterwards?

A: I think I left on my terms. In hindsight though there should have been a formal exit with compensation and an apology, not just a letter of resignation given in out of frustration. I know I quit based on moral grounds and on what I believed was right. I had no qualms to give up a good job for that. This impacted me financially, yet I would not sleep with my boss to ensure I had a secure career.

Q: What is your advice for victims of sexual harassment in a work place?

A: Report it to your superiors immediately if not to a Senior.
Save or record any form of verbal or written harassment from the onset and keep it for future reference. Speak to as many people about it at work as you can. Make as many people aware of your situation as possible.

Q: Why is it important to report such an issue?

A: Women have every right to come to work, do their jobs, get paid and feel secure.

They should not need to feel under obligation to grant sexual favours to secure career growth.

Hence such incidents must be reported. Ask yourself these questions:

1) How often do you hear of this situation happening to a man?
2) If your daughter was facing this situation, what would your response be?

Q: What is your advice to victims who are afraid to report such instances?

A: There is nothing to be afraid of when reporting such incidents. You are not at fault. You are not the perpetrator.

Q: How and where can a victim of sexual harassment gain support at a time like this?

A: Ideally from the company itself – either from Human Resources or Senior Management. If not perhaps external women welfare units – or a lawyer.

Q: What do you feel has caused sexual harassment to be seen as commonplace?

A: Some women do consent [under pressure] to the demands of their harassers- either [editor’s addition: because it is perceived that there is no other option] for career growth or for their own pleasure. These instances have normalised harassment at the workplace. In the case of men, some seem to think “monogamy is not for them”, and they have almost a right to make advances on a female work colleague and consider it normal – even if she refuses his advances. Her refusal is then seen as an attack on the man’s dominance; she is seen as being ‘insubordinate’. Hence the harassment which follows, which could be seen as vindictive.

Q: What are your suggestions on curbing sexual harassment in the work place?

A: Making both men and women aware of their rights as employees
Making both men and women aware of consequences of such incidents, and that definitive, stern and swift action will be taken against the perpetrators.