During Lockdown, Workplace Sexual Harassment Has Gone Digital

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One would imagine that working from home would put an end to workplace sexual harassment. However, reports show that the work-from-home scenario hasn’t ended, only reimagined harassment.

Use of inappropriate emojis and language, inappropriate gestures during virtual meetings, virtual stalking, unwarranted requests for video calls after office hours or asking for the camera to pan more than just the employee’s face, wearing or requesting unsuitable attires, and lewd jokes – these among others constitute the virtual harassment people are facing when working from home.

Additionally, while workplaces provided a degree of formality that may have dissuaded harassment in some cases, working from home has brought the professional into an informal setting that seems to encourage informal behaviour for the perpetrators.

This shift has raised important questions. Is the Prevention of Sexual Harassment at Workplace (POSH) Act still applicable when working from home? Does it recognise non-physical forms of harassment as sexual harassment? What can one do when facing sexual harassment while working from home?

Does POSH Act Cover Sexual Harassment  In Remote Work Environments?

The POSH Act includes ‘a dwelling place or a house’ in its definition of a workplace. While this was meant to protect domestic helpers employed at homes, its literal translation now applies to everyone working from home during the lockdown

A Mumbai-based sales professional told LiveMint, that she dreads her weekly check-ins with her boss. He tells her to adjust her camera as he “can only see her face”. “He always insists on a full-body visual, making me feel as if my body is on display. I feel intensely uncomfortable. Do you think this is sexual harassment?” she asks.

The POSH Act recognises all “expressed or implied unwelcome acts or behaviour demanding or requesting sexual favours, making sexually coloured remarks, showing pornography and any other unwelcome verbal or non-verbal conduct of sexual nature”, as sexual harassment.

These are instances that can occur when working from home, and therefore are a legal offense.

Employees Must Be Made Aware And Organisations Must Implement Zero-Tolerance Rules Against Sexual Harassment

Some organisations have begun conducting training for employees to check incidents of online sexual harassment and help employees recognise inappropriate virtual workplace behaviour.

“We are sending regular communication to employees, encouraging them to be aware and report any unwelcome behaviour with sexual undertones,” Anuradha Bharat, head of people operations at Razorpay, told Economic Times.

They are also providing training to employees across the board on unacceptable behaviours when working from home.

“Managers are also receiving training on various scenarios that can occur and how they can be dealt with,” she says. They have also made necessary changes to remote working guidelines so as to include sections that cover POSH. “Managers are also receiving training on various scenarios that can occur and how they can be dealt with,” Bharat said.

All organisations need to implement training and refresher courses to drive awareness about sexual harassment in remote work environments, and strict actionable guidelines that prevent and punish it.

In cases where the organisations’ support doesn’t exist, one can file a complaint under the POSH Act.

How? 

To file a complaint under the POSH Act, the employee needs to submit a complaint to the Internal Complaints Committee or Local Complaints Committee within 3 months of the incident. A notice must be issued to the respondent within 7 days of receiving the complaint, and an inquiry must be completed within 90 days. A report of the enquiry along with orders will submitted to the employer or district officers within 10 days, and they must implement the order within the next 60 days. 

Remote work is not likely to taper off anytime soon, and neither will remote sexual harassment without intervention. Employees need to be made aware. Employers need to commit to zero tolerance towards workplace sexual harassment, no matter where that workplace happens to be right now.

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Sanjana writes far too little to call herself a writer and reads far too much pop-culture fiction to call herself a reader. She once received a Special Mention for the Best Young Critic Award by MAMI, and refuses to stop talking about it. Her love for films, art, and theatre runs deep and is only borderline pretentious. She detests writing in third person but can be convinced to engage in it occasionally.

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