The number of women entering Indian workforce has increased with time. It is important that their safety is taken care of to ensure a diverse and inclusive workforce. Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act 2013 also known as the POSH Act was implemented with this aim and it attempts to prevent sexual harassment and provide a speedy and effective redressal of sexual harassment complaints.
However, it is unfortunate to see that many misuse the law in the form of false complaints.
While it is important that the Internal Committee must provide all support to a woman if she experiences sexual harassment at workplace, this must not be at the cost of an innocent individual. But it is not always easy to distinguish between a genuine and a false complaint. To ensure that an innocent person is not penalized, the IC must handle every complaint with care and caution.
This blog presents a guideline for handling false complaints. Let’s begin by understanding what a false complaint is.
What are False Complaints?
Section 14 (1) of the POSH Act talks about false complaints and punishment for the same.
- Punishment for false or malicious complaint and false evidence.
(1) Where the Internal Committee or the Local Committee, as the case may be, arrives at a conclusion that the allegation against the respondent is malicious or the aggrieved woman or any other person making the complaint has made the complaint knowing it to be false or the aggrieved woman or any other person making the complaint has produced any forged or misleading document, it may recommend to the employer or the District Officer, as the case may be, to take action against the woman or the person who has made the complaint under sub-section (1) or sub-section (2) of section 9, … in such manner as may be prescribed:
How can IC Decide Whether a Complaint is False or Not?
IC must not be prejudiced against any complaint and should treat every complaint with the same level of seriousness. Even if IC suspects the credibility of a complaint, they must accept it and initiate inquiry in an unbiased and neutral manner. Only if the IC finds evidence to prove that the complainant had a malicious intent when filing a complaint, the IC can recommend punishments against the complainant.
Section 14(1) of the POSH Act:
“Provided further that the malicious intent on part of the complainant shall be established after an inquiry in accordance with the procedure prescribed, before any action is recommended”
It is important to note that inability to substantiate a complaint or provide adequate proof will not automatically prove that the complaint was false.
Section 14(1) of the POSH Act also observes the following:
“Provided that a mere inability to substantiate a complaint or provide adequate proof need not attract action against the complainant under this section:
What are the Penalties of False Complaints?
If it is proven that a person has made false complaint, the penalties awarded should be in accordance with the service rules. In case, no such service rules exist, based on the severity of the complaint, any of the following penalties can be awarded to the guilty:
- Written apology
- Reprimand or censure
- Withholding of promotion
- Withholding of pay rise or increments
- Terminating the guilty from service
- Undergoing a counselling session or
- Carrying out community service
How can an Organization Prevent False Complaints?
The above-mentioned are measures the IC must take if an employee submits a false sexual harassment complaint. The IC will not have to go through the whole procedure if it can prevent the misuse of Act through false complaints.
But this not easy considering that if a false complaint is filed with an aim to harm someone, it is highly likely that the person has pre-planned it after knowing the consequences. However, there are a few tips that the IC can consider that will keep most of the false complaints at bay:
- Include severe punishments and heavy fines for false complaints in the organization’s POSH Policy.
- Introduce the consequence of filing false complaints in the regular POSH trainings. Ensure that the employees are clear about the difference between an unsubstantiated complaint and a false allegation.
- During small discussions, IC can use case studies to show how the courts of India have handled false complaints. As you know, courts will order much stricter actions than the organization for false complaints. In the case of Anita Suresh vs Union Of India & Ors, the High Court of Delhi imposed a hefty fine of Rs. 50,000 against the petitioner for filing a false complaint against the respondent with some ulterior motive.
- While accepting the complaints, IC will definitely walk the complainant through the inquiry procedure. At this time, IC can also explain how false complaints will be handled.
Inappropriate behavior in the workplace must not be tolerated at any cost. The same applies for misuse of support systems in the organization too. If the organization is able to send a strong message that harming a person in anyway way will not be tolerated, sexual harassment and false complaints can be prevented to a great extent.