Opinion

Dealing with sexual harassment in the virtual workplace

Anjali Varma | Updated on April 22, 2020 Published on April 22, 2020

In the context of a video call, proper training and sensitisation are important and should include topics like dressing appropriately and keeping the conversation limited to work

Working from home is now an accepted part of corporate life, thanks to the current lockdown. Corporate India has eased into the new normal almost overnight, learning how to ‘keep the lights on’ with a remote workforce. While there were teething troubles around issues such as data privacy and cybersecurity, companies were quick to identify these concerns, and rapidly addressed apprehensions about the safety of collaborative software and video conferencing tools.

However, there are dimensions of workplace conduct and safety that are equally important. With a large percentage of the urban working population, estimated upwards of three million, now working from home ( reported in The Economic Times), employers must remain conscious of the potential for blurring of lines between the home and the workplace — obscuring an important element of professional and safe workplaces and leading to newer dimensions around workplace harassment.

The Prohibition of Sexual Harassment Act 2013 (or POSH) was enacted to ensure safe working spaces for women and to build enabling work environments that respect the working woman’s right to equality of status and opportunity. It defined the ‘workplace’ as “any place visited by the employee arising out of or during the course of employment, including transportation provided by the employer for undertaking such a journey”.

The POSH Act is clear that a workplace covers both the organised and un-organised sectors, and includes any work-related offsite, office party, get-togethers, social media groups — in fact, any place that comes under the ambit of a work-related relationship.

Complex scenarios

Given the broad boundaries of this definition, it is worth thinking about the virtual world of video conferencing and the manner in which this Act becomes applicable. With telecommuting today accounting for a large proportion of work (a recent Gartner poll reveals that 91 per cent of HR leaders have implemented work-from-home since the outbreak of the Covid-19), HR leaders will have to grapple with increasingly complex scenarios under the POSH Act. These are not limited to the duration of the lockdown.

Data from Gartner also tells us that by 2030, the demand for remote work will increase by 30 per cent, when “Gen Z” enters the workplace. Employers should be cognisant of this extension of the workplace and must take all steps to ensure that the parallel virtual workplace remains as safe and free of intended or unintended harassment as the brick and mortar one.

While memes and jokes about work-from-home attire appear on social media on a daily basis, HR leaders must constantly reiterate that the same rules of professional etiquette apply, irrespective of whether a meeting is in a physical space or via a virtual medium. Sexual harassment, as defined in the POSH Act is ‘any unwelcome, sexually determined physical, verbal, or non-verbal conduct’, and these can take on new dimensions in a world of video calls and the lack of a fixed “end” to the day.

While employees may be physically at home, they continue to operate in a “workplace” when interacting with colleagues, and companies must communicate this to employees in no uncertain terms. When employees attend video conferences, dress codes will still need to be maintained. While companies must drill home the basics as part of their code of conduct — employees on video conferences must not dress in vests or undergarments, or tees with suggestive phrases on them — they must also remember that there are many other aspects to video-conferencing. For instance, on one virtual meeting, participants were privy to a poster on the wall with provocative content and that caused considerable discomfort to them. In another case, inappropriate jokes were shared on a video call to “lighten the mood” and to “build camaraderie”, without the speaker realising that these were fraught with danger.

With employees sitting in the comfort of their living room or spare bedroom, it becomes easy for them to “switch off” and forget basic workplace norms. One-on-one work-related conversations may become casual. An employee may discuss the appearance, or attire of a colleague and make them uncomfortable.

These are some of the examples that reiterate the key message of the POSH Act — harassment is any conduct that is unwelcome or sexual in nature, can be a subjective experience and is one where impact and not intent matters.

Sensitisation important

Sexual harassment often takes place in a matrix of power. In the current situation when everyone is fire-fighting and working 24/7, often after normal working hours, it is important to keep the aforementioned messages at the forefront. Proper training and sensitisation are important. Managers must be sensitised to observe “not camera ready” behaviour.

They must not insist that female colleagues log on to one-on-one video calls, but have the option to take calls in “audio-only” mode. Employees must not assume that because they are working late hours, they can send chat messages to colleagues at those hours. Mandatory POSH training should include not just topics like dressing appropriately and keeping the conversation limited to work, but should also ensure that employees fully understand what is appropriate and what is not in the context of a video call.

While it is critical that companies conduct training and awareness sessions for employees, they must not forget an important constituency- newly recruited staff and interns who are now getting on-boarded virtually, and who may need to be sensitised to expected standards of professional behaviour. Webinars, short videos, and infographics that explain and provide examples of the possible missteps are a good foundation for educating and sensitising employees. This also cuts both ways. Clear messages of the ramifications of false and malicious complaints also need calling out.

Redress mechanism

Lastly, companies should remember to maintain a functioning complaints and redress mechanism. For instance, they should consider how the Internal Complaints Committee can conduct virtual meetings, so that employees can be assured of swift action if they complain of harassment.

Patriarchy and gender stereotypes are so steeped in our popular culture that we cannot afford to assume everyone understands all nuances of professional and unprofessional conduct. The POSH Act has long been seen as a sound proactive tool to safeguard a woman’s right to dignity and work and to guiding young professionals who are often lost in the transition from college to workplace.

As we undergo a dramatic shift in workplace dynamics, companies should be proactive in acknowledging that the workplace has transformed in ways they did not contemplate even six months ago, and should constantly refresh their frameworks for workplace safety.

The writer is a Bengaluru-based Human Resources consultant

Published on April 22, 2020
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