Tehran, Iran – It’s difficult to combat a subject that’s so taboo, discussion of it is off-limits. But the silence that has long surrounded sexual harassment and abuse of power in the Iranian workplace is finally being broken.
The Information Technology Organisation (ITO), a subsidiary of Iran‘s ICT Ministry, has become the first Iranian government agency to publish in-house guidelines banning what it refers to as “forbidden conduct” – harassment, sexual harassment, discrimination and abuse of power.
Drawing on international examples, but modified to align with “Iranian and Islamic values”, the harassment guidelines cover verbal and physical threats, aggressive behaviour, defamation and intimidation, among other offences.
Sexual harassment is described by the guidelines as any sexual advance made without consent, while discrimination is defined as “any form of unpleasant, unjust or inequal behaviour” based on race, nationality, religion, gender, age or political tendencies. The section on abuse of power covers all misuses of authority that negatively affect an individual’s career.
The guidelines were spearheaded by ITO’s head of women participation, Meshkat Asadi.
“Obviously we’re still at the beginning of the road,” she said in an interview with the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency. “But it seems that serious barriers can come down when thoughts turn into words and those words are put on paper, so there’s hope that this could be effective.”
Asadi’s boss, ITO head Amir Nazemy, in an effort to catalyse change within companies that fall with his ministry’s remit, used Twitter to call on CEOs of major startups and fintech firms to adopt the guidelines.
“As sexual harassment is a taboo [in Iran], preventing it requires special support from executives,” he wrote.
Several of the largest names in Iran’s startup and tech scene have answered the call. Those adopting the guidelines include ride-hailing companies Snapp and Tap30, online buying platform Takhfifan and cloud computing services provider ArvanCloud.
ArvanCloud has taken the initiative a step further and established an in-house online platform to give employees the option to report harassing behaviour anonymously.
ITO officials responsible for the guidelines refused requests for comment by Al Jazeera.
The task of changing workplace culture
Some Iranian executives welcome the government effort to curb abuse, and want to build on the guidelines to effect genuine change in the workplace.
“Even if we set the right framework, nothing meaningful will happen if we don’t work on the cultural aspect and develop a corporate culture that has the capacity to welcome such improvements,” Aseyeh Hatami, CEO of recruitment and jobs site IranTalent, told Al Jazeera.
That promises to be a long road, she said, because the absence of initiatives to encourage healthy sexual behaviours in the workplace and in society at large has led to confusion over what constitutes acceptable behaviour.
“For instance, one of my male employees had asked a female co-worker to go to a coffee shop to discuss a work project, and she perceived that as a breach of her private space and professional etiquette,” Hatami said.
Reporting abuses of power is difficult even in the most constructively regulated environments. It often invites personal scrutiny and ends up re-victimising and, in the worst cases, vilifying victims of abuse.
The fears associated with reporting abuse and harassment are acute in Iranian workplaces, which are often bereft of resources to deal with these issues.
Many small and medium-sized businesses lack robust human resources departments to investigate complaints. Companies that have established support mechanisms reporting and rooting out abuse have done so independently because the law does not require it.
While Hatami is pleased that the government has established binding rules, she is concerned about regulatory overreach.
“Having regulations is great and necessary, but businesses in Iran, especially fledgling ones, take a hit both from lack of suitable regulations and from hasty laws that go into too much detail and tell executives how to run their businesses,” she said.
Hatami hopes the ITO guidelines can be gradually refined through community feedback.
Educating executives to lead the way
Though the reforms are seen by many as an important catalyst, changing attitudes, they say, needs to start at the top of an organisation.
“The ITO guidelines are a positive step, but there’s much to be done in terms of educating executives and other employees, and organisational structures need to be improved in a way that would support victims,” a training specialist at the National Iranian Gas Company told Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity.
“If guidelines are put in place across the country, I have no doubt that many [people] will undermine [cast doubt on] whether instances of sexual harassment and abuse of power even take place due to the taboo nature of the subject,” she said.
In its guidelines, the ITO encourages educational initiatives including organisation-wide workshops to educate all employees about forbidden conduct, requiring executives and supervisors to undergo targeted training as a prerequisite for job promotions, and handing out copies of the guidelines to new employees.
The guidelines also designate a role for local nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) to act as a safety net for victims and for reporting harassment cases.
“There is a tendency in companies to sweep such issues under the carpet, which encourages perpetrators,” ITO chief Nazemy said in a recent interview. “By involving NGOs, at least an independent pair of eyes will scrutinise such cases”.
The training expert at the state-run gas company told Al Jazeera that the company has received complaints of abuse in the past, which were mostly handled directly by high-level executives rather than the human resources department.
“Management usually prefers to resolve complaints peacefully at the personal level through reaching mutual agreements, and acts very strictly in terms of requiring evidence in dealing with serious cases to prevent defamation,” she said.
The trainer told Al Jazeera that in one of those cases, an executive in a provincial branch of the state-run entity was fired from his post after a victim produced video evidence of harassment.
The ITO guidelines encourage the resolution of complaints by mutual agreement, including through the involvement of a third-party arbiter.
If unsuccessful, the guidelines direct alleged victims to file formal complaints within 90 days of the offence that was committed or the last event in the chain of reported events and present evidence.