Workplace Harassment Laws in India: BRIEF OVERVIEW

Photo of author

By Legal Referencer

Table of Contents

A) Introduction

In everyday terms, harassment is a type of discrimination involving any undesired physical or verbal conduct that can offend or humiliate an individual. These actions are typically recognized by their departure from moral and social norms, causing significant disturbance to the mental and physical well-being of the person. In legal terms, such behaviors are deemed unsettling, threatening, or disturbing, stemming from discriminatory motives. These acts not only hinder individuals from enjoying their rights, but can be classified as bullying when carried out repetitively. The crucial distinctions lie in the concepts of continuity and the alarming, disturbing, or threatening nature, setting harassment apart from mere surprise or insult. The Workplace Harassment Laws in India play a pivotal role in safeguarding employees rights and also ensuring a work environment free from intimidation or hostility.

Workplace Harassment Laws in India

B) Various types of workplace harassment

  1. Sexual Harassment: Unwanted advances, comments, or conduct of a sexual nature.
  2. Bullying: Repeated aggressive behavior, verbal or physical, intended to intimidate or harm.
  3. Cyberbullying: Harassment through digital platforms, including social media and online communication.
  4. Workplace Harassment: Unwelcome behavior at work, such as discrimination, bullying, or intimidation.
  5. Racial Harassment: Discrimination or prejudice based on race, ethnicity, or nationality.
  6. Religious Harassment: Unfair treatment or discrimination based on religious beliefs.
  7. Gender-Based Harassment: Harassment linked to an individual’s gender, affecting both men and women.
  8. Age-Related Harassment: Discrimination or mistreatment based on a person’s age.
  9. Disability Harassment: Unfair treatment or discrimination against individuals with disabilities.
  10. Online Harassment: Harassment conducted through digital means, including online stalking and trolling.
  11. Verbal Harassment: Unwanted verbal comments, insults, or offensive language.
  12. Physical Harassment: Unwanted physical contact or actions causing harm or discomfort.
  13. Psychological Harassment: Emotional and mental distress caused by persistent harmful behaviors.
  14. Sexual Orientation Harassment: Discrimination or mistreatment based on one’s sexual orientation.
  15. Stalking: Repeated, unwanted attention, often involving following or monitoring an individual.

C) Mental Harassment at Workplace

Workplace harassment, particularly targeting women employees, remains a prevalent issue globally, with studies indicating alarmingly high frequencies. Research suggests that up to 50% of women encounter workplace harassment during their employment tenure, yet a significant portion refrains from reporting such incidents.

Workplace harassment has various forms, leading to the humiliation and defamation of women employees. Contrary to the prevailing misconception that workplace harassment solely pertains to sexual nature, it encompasses diverse classifications. These include harassment based on age, where individuals may face mistreatment due to their age group. Similarly, harassment grounded in disability unfairly targets employees with disabilities, subjecting them to unfavorable treatment.

Defamation is another facet of workplace harassment, involving actions aimed at demeaning and libeling individuals, resulting in damage to their reputation or image. Discrimination based on caste introduces another dimension, fostering an environment where employees may face bias and unfair treatment due to their caste background.

Moreover, harassment on the grounds of sexual orientation and marital status adds to the complexity of workplace mistreatment, highlighting the challenges faced by employees who fall outside perceived societal norms.

D) The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013

Enacted as the inaugural legislation aimed at safeguarding women from workplace sexual harassment, this law meticulously defines the term within section 2. It presents an inclusive definition, explicitly incorporating various unwelcome acts or behaviors, whether conveyed directly or indirectly. These encompass:

  • Physical contact and advances
  • A demand or request for a sexual favor
  • Making sexually colored remarks
  • Showing pornography
  • Any other unwelcome physical, verbal, or non-verbal conduct of a sexual nature


Workplace Harassment Laws in India

E) Information Technology Act, 2000

The Information Technology Act of 2000 endeavors to provide legal standing to online transactions while concurrently governing a spectrum of online actions and offenses. Key provisions include:

Punishment for Publishing or Transmitting any Obscene Material in Electronic Form under Section 67: This section addresses the publication or transmission of obscene material in electronic form. It establishes legal consequences for individuals engaging in such activities, acknowledging the need to regulate content disseminated through electronic mediums.

Section 67 of the Information Technology Act addresses the publication or transmission of obscene material in electronic form, providing a legal framework to combat the dissemination of explicit content. The section outlines specific criteria for determining the nature of the material and prescribes corresponding penalties.

The provision encompasses several elements:

Publication or Transmission of Obscene Material: Anyone publishing, transmitting, or causing to be published or transmitted in electronic form material that is lascivious or appeals to prurient interests falls under the purview of this section.

Effect on Morality: The law considers the effect of the material on individuals likely to read, see, or hear it, with the objective of preventing content that tends to deprave and corrupt.
The penalties are graduated based on the number of convictions:

First Conviction: Imprisonment of either description for a term up to three years and a fine extending to five lakh rupees.

Second or Subsequent Conviction: Imprisonment for a term up to five years and a fine up to ten lakh rupees.
By outlining specific criteria and penalties, the law seeks to discourage the creation and circulation of obscene content in the electronic domain, contributing to the responsible use of technology and safeguarding public morality.
Punishment for Publishing or Transmitting of any Material containing Sexually Explicit Act, etc., in an Electronic Form under Section 67A:

Section 67A pertains to the dissemination of material involving sexually explicit acts through electronic means.

Section 67A of the Information Technology Act addresses the publication or transmission of material containing sexually explicit acts or conduct in electronic form. This legal provision is designed to combat the dissemination of explicit content, particularly in the digital realm, and prescribes specific penalties for offenders.

The key elements of Section 67A include:

Publication or Transmission of Sexually Explicit Material: The section applies to individuals who publish, transmit, or cause to be published or transmitted in electronic form any material containing sexually explicit acts or conduct.

Graduated Penalties: Penalties are outlined based on the number of convictions:

First Conviction: Imprisonment of either description for a term that may extend to five years and a fine up to ten lakh rupees.

Second or Subsequent Conviction: Imprisonment for a term that may extend to seven years and a fine up to ten lakh rupees.

Workplace Harassment Laws in India

F) Indian Penal Code, 1860

While the term “Mental Harassment” lacks explicit definition in the Indian Penal Code 1860, it can be understood within the context of cruelty or torture. The Code’s relevant sections provide insights into acts that can be interpreted as constituting mental harassment:

1) Obscene Acts and Songs under Section 294: 

Section 294 of the Indian Penal Code addresses obscene acts and songs, setting clear provisions to deter behaviors that may cause annoyance to others in public places. It stipulates that anyone engaging in such acts or expressions shall face legal consequences.

The section delineates two scenarios:

a. Obscene Acts in Public Places: Individuals performing any obscene act in a public place, causing annoyance to others, fall under the purview of this provision. The law recognizes the importance of maintaining public decency and seeks to penalize actions that can offend or disturb those present.

b. Obscene Songs, Ballads, or Words in or Near Public Places: Singing, reciting, or uttering any obscene song, ballad, or words in or near a public place is also covered. This extension reflects the legislative intent to curb not only physical acts but also verbal expressions that may be offensive in public spaces.

The consequences for violating Section 294 include imprisonment of either description for a term that may extend to three months, a fine, or both. This legal framework emphasizes the societal expectation of responsible behavior in public, safeguarding the public’s right to be free from offensive or disturbing actions that may compromise public decency. By establishing these regulations, the law aims to create a harmonious and respectful public environment, discouraging activities that could cause discomfort or annoyance to others.

2) Assault or Criminal Force to Woman with an Intent to Outrage her Modesty under Section 354: 

The offense of assault or criminal force against a woman with the intent to outrage her modesty is explicitly addressed in this legal provision. Any person who physically assaults or employs criminal force against a woman, with the specific intention to outrage her modesty or the knowledge that such actions are likely to result in the same, is liable for punishment. The prescribed penalties include imprisonment of either description for a term that can extend up to two years, a fine, or both.

This legal provision underscores the significance of safeguarding a woman’s modesty and the severity with which society views actions that violate this aspect of personal dignity. By establishing clear consequences for such offenses, the law aims to act as a deterrent and ensure the protection and respect of a woman’s modesty within the societal framework.

3) Sexual Harassment and Punishment for Sexual Harassment under Section 354A: Sexual harassment and its corresponding penalties are explicitly outlined in the following provisions:

A man engaging in any of the following acts – involving unwelcome and explicit sexual overtures through physical contact and advances, making a demand or request for sexual favors, showing pornography against a woman’s will, or making sexually colored remarks – is deemed guilty of committing the offense of sexual harassment.

For offenses falling under clauses (i), (ii), or (iii) of sub-section (1), the perpetrator, if found guilty, faces rigorous imprisonment for a term extending up to three years, a fine, or both.
In the case of an offense specified in clause (iv) of sub-section (1), the perpetrator is subject to imprisonment of either description for a term that may extend to one year, a fine, or both. These provisions underscore the legal gravity assigned to acts of sexual harassment, reflecting a commitment to deter and penalize such behaviors.

4) Section 509 of the Indian Penal Code addresses acts intended to insult the modesty of a woman:

Any person purposefully intending to demean a woman’s modesty by uttering words, making sounds or gestures, or exhibiting objects, with the intention of being heard or seen by the woman, is liable for punishment. Intrusion upon the privacy of a woman is also covered under this section. The prescribed penalty for such offenses includes simple imprisonment for a term extending up to one year, a fine, or both. This legal provision emphasizes the importance of respecting a woman’s dignity and privacy, seeking to deter actions that violate these rights by imposing significant legal consequences on those found guilty of such conduct.

Workplace Harassment Laws in India

G) Legal References

The Vishaka guidelines, stemming from the landmark judgment in the case of Vishaka & Ors. vs. State of Rajasthan (AIR 1997 SC 3011), were formulated to address and prevent sexual harassment in the workplace. The Supreme Court laid down the following guidelines:

Definition of Sexual Harassment: Clearly define sexual harassment to include unwelcome sexually determined behavior, whether directly or by implication.

Preventive Measures: Employers must take proactive measures to prevent sexual harassment, such as developing and implementing a comprehensive policy against sexual harassment.

Internal Complaints Committee (ICC): Establish an Internal Complaints Committee at each office or administrative unit for addressing complaints. The committee should comprise a majority of women and include an external member.

Complaints Procedure: Outline a proper complaints mechanism for reporting incidents of sexual harassment, ensuring confidentiality and protection for the complainant.

Informing Employees: Disseminate information about the policy and the mechanism for addressing complaints through workshops, seminars, and other suitable means.

Assistance to Victims: Provide necessary assistance to the victim, such as counseling services and support during the investigation process.

Protection Against Retaliation: Ensure that victims or witnesses of sexual harassment are protected from any adverse action as a result of filing a complaint.

Confidentiality: Maintain confidentiality throughout the inquiry process, protecting the privacy of both the complainant and the accused.

Timely Resolution: Ensure that complaints are addressed promptly and efficiently, avoiding unnecessary delays in the investigation and resolution.

Penalties: Impose appropriate penalties on the perpetrator in the event of a proven case of sexual harassment, including but not limited to disciplinary action, termination, or legal consequences.

These guidelines are integral in creating a safer and more respectful work environment, emphasizing the responsibility of employers to prevent, address, and redress incidents of sexual harassment within the workplace.

-A pivotal case in Indian jurisprudence addressing mental harassment is the Indra Sarma v. V.K.V. Sarma case, a landmark decision by the Supreme Court in 2013. This case marked a significant development in matrimonial law, specifically under the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955, by acknowledging mental cruelty as legitimate grounds for divorce.

The Supreme Court, in its ruling, underscored the gravity of mental cruelty within the marital context, recognizing its potential to inflict substantial harm on the mental health and overall well-being of a spouse. Importantly, the court elucidated that the definition of mental cruelty was expansive, emphasizing that its determination would hinge on the unique facts and circumstances of each case.

To provide clarity, the court delineated examples of behaviors constituting mental cruelty. These included instances such as persistent verbal abuse, unfounded accusations of infidelity, withholding of affection, and refusal to engage in meaningful communication. By doing so, the court acknowledged the diverse forms that mental harassment could assume, illustrating its nuanced nature.

Crucially, the court highlighted that the cumulative effect of a series of acts could collectively amount to mental cruelty, even if each individual act, taken in isolation, might not be independently sufficient. This recognition of cumulative impact underscored the court’s sensitivity to the often insidious and cumulative nature of mental harassment within the marital relationship.

Workplace Harassment Laws in India

H) Effects of mental harassment at the workplace on employees

The effects of mental harassment at the workplace can have profound and detrimental impacts on employees, influencing their overall well-being, job satisfaction, and performance. Here are several key points outlining the effects:

Deterioration of Mental Health:

Constant mental harassment can lead to stress, anxiety, and depression among employees.
Prolonged exposure may contribute to more severe mental health issues.
Impact on Physical Health:

Mental harassment is often accompanied by physical symptoms such as headaches, insomnia, and gastrointestinal problems.
The stress from harassment can weaken the immune system, making individuals more susceptible to illnesses.
Reduced Job Satisfaction:

Employees experiencing mental harassment may face a decline in job satisfaction due to a hostile work environment.
Reduced satisfaction can lead to decreased motivation and engagement in their roles.
Decreased Productivity:

Continuous mental harassment can impair concentration and focus, resulting in a decline in overall productivity.
Employees may struggle to perform at their best under stressful conditions.
Higher Turnover Rates:

Employees enduring mental harassment are more likely to seek alternative employment opportunities.
High turnover rates can disrupt team dynamics and affect organizational stability.
Strained Interpersonal Relationships:

Mental harassment can spill over into interpersonal relationships, causing strained interactions with colleagues.
A toxic work environment may hinder effective collaboration and communication.
Increased Absenteeism:

The adverse effects of mental harassment may lead to increased absenteeism as employees seek respite from a hostile workplace.
Frequent absences can disrupt workflow and team dynamics.
Financial Consequences:

Employers may face financial consequences due to decreased productivity, increased turnover costs, and potential legal actions.
Negative impacts on the organization’s reputation may further affect financial stability.
Legal Implications:

Mental harassment can have legal repercussions for organizations, leading to lawsuits and damage to the company’s reputation.
Legal battles may result in financial penalties and additional strain on resources.
Emotional Toll:

Employees enduring mental harassment may experience feelings of isolation, helplessness, and frustration.
The emotional toll can affect their personal lives and overall quality of life.

I) FAQ’s

1. Can employers be held liable for not addressing harassment complaints?

Absolutely, employers failing to address complaints adequately can face legal repercussions

2. Is workplace harassment, limited to gender-based issues only?

No, it covers a wide spectrum of behaviors that create a hostile environment, regardless of gender

3. Can employees report harassment anonymously?

Some policies allow for anonymous reporting, ensuring confidentiality and protection for the accuser.

4. What are the three 3 types of harassment?


5. What to do in case of harassment in the workplace?

Report it to the concerned authority, bring it to the notice of HR. If you have enough proof, you may also make a police complaint.

6. How does HR handle harassment?

Absolutely, making it crystal clear to the employees that any form of unwelcome harassment won’t fly is key. One way to do this is by setting up a robust complaint system or process. Also, training managers and staff on anti-harassment stuff is crucial. Plus, quick and fitting action should be taken when an employee raises a complaint.

7. Where can I complain about harassment at work in India?

Ministry of Labour & Employment

8. How do you prove verbal harassment?

Having physical records can back up your case if you’ve faced abuse. Any evidence you have can support your claim of suffering damages from verbal abuse. But, a heads up, recording conversations or calls without legal advice isn’t recommended.

9. What is the best defense against harassment?

Having some tangible proof can strengthen your case if you’ve been a victim of abuse. When you’re making a legal claim, any evidence, especially physical documents, goes a long way in demonstrating the impact of verbal abuse. But a heads up: don’t go recording conversations or calls without getting the green light from a legal eagle first.

10. What is indirect harassment?

Indirect harassment happens when an action doesn’t directly target an employee but ends up creating a toxic vibe or offends someone else nearby—a sort of secondary victim situation. It can take various forms, like when someone overhears a joke or a remark that’s offensive.

11. Is personal harassment illegal?

Yes it is, if harassment takes a toll on the victim’s mental well-being, causing anxiety or depression, it’s a clear violation. Now, when it comes to verbal harassment, a couple of illegal acts include shooting off emails with inappropriate content or cracking vulgar jokes that target communities or religions. Also, consistently pressuring for sexual favors or dates in person? Definitely not within the legal bounds.

12. What is a form of verbal harassment?

Some of the most prevalent forms of verbal harassment are making inappropriate jokes, teasing, or throwing around sexually related questions. Then there’s the asking out of a colleague at work, unwelcome advances, or requests for sexual favors. Also, prying into a colleague’s sexual history or preferences while on the job? That’s definitely not playing by the legal rules.

13. What not to say in an HR investigation?

When you’re knee-deep in an investigation, chatting excessively can backfire. Stuff like passing on what one witness said to another, sharing your personal take with involved employees, or making the complaint public at work? That can cast doubts on your impartiality.

14. How do you document harassment?

It’s crucial to jot down all the nitty-gritty details pronto, capturing the exact happenings while they’re fresh. Be sure to note down times, dates, locations, and anyone who witnessed the event. Starting a dedicated file for these notes and any evidence is key. Remember, keep that file secure, stashed away from the workplace for safekeeping.

15. How do I complain about employee harassment?

Typically, the go-to for reporting harassment is the HR department. Now, if your company has a designated harassment officer, they’re your go-to too. Reporting it to your immediate supervisor is an option, but to ensure a thorough investigation and proper documentation, it’s advisable to loop in HR.

16. How do you deal with rude HR?

When faced with a challenging situation, it’s crucial to stay cool, calm, and collected. Resist the assumption that you’re the root cause without solid evidence. Sometimes, those tough questions may just be probing, so handle them with composure. Employ firm body language to assert your position and gracefully move on from the situation. Always ensure you’re within legal boundaries throughout the process.

17. What is the punishment for mental harassment?

Any such kind of offense is punishable under law and the punishment can be an imprisonment of three years or more and the culprit shall be liable to heavy fines.

18. What to do if someone is calling harassing you?

If you’re facing harassment, taking steps to safeguard yourself is key. Maintain a record of the calls, block the caller’s number, and report the harassment to the police. These actions can assist in putting a stop to the harassment and shielding yourself from further harm.

19. What is abusive behavior from a boss?

Displaying unpredictable and erratic moods creates an atmosphere of uncertainty and fear. Managing time poorly by overloading schedules can add to this pressure. Additionally, badmouthing, intimidating, humiliating, or bullying employees through harsh criticism, especially over minor mistakes, is unacceptable and potentially falls under harassment and hostile workplace territory.

20. How do you deal with false accusations of harassment?

It’s crucial to maintain composure and refrain from retaliating. Take time to review your employer’s harassment policy to understand the protocols. Avoid direct confrontation with the accuser and instead, reach out to your HR department for guidance and support. Collect your own evidence and keep detailed notes of the events. Provide your genuine alibi and any witness accounts available. Highlight your track record and history accurately to support your case.

21. Is gossiping a form of harassment?

If the employee is purposefully sharing false information, it could be considered harassment, discrimination, retaliation, slander, or defamation. Investigate the issue to see if the employee is in violation of your anti-harassment or nondiscrimination policies.

22. What is third party harassment?

Third-party harassment occurs when someone outside the company, like a vendor or customer, engages in sexual harassment towards an employee. It’s distinct from harassment by a coworker, as third-party harassers are individuals operating beyond the company’s workforce. This distinction is crucial in identifying and addressing such cases within the legal framework of workplace harassment.


Leave a comment