Understanding Virtual Sexual Harassment

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Understanding Virtual Sexual Harassment

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Understanding Virtual Sexual Harassment

The nature of our workplace has been significantly impacted due to COVID-19 pandemic. Many have had to adapt to the ‘new normal’, which is working from home. Waking up to ‘travel’ to their makeshift home office, in order to commence their day’s work, employees find themselves under the gaze of the webcam: WebEx, Zoom, Google meets or Skype, as online platforms become the new accustomed workplace. Our offices have sunk back into its wonted quietness. The new workplace has blurred the lines of professional and personal as well as formal and informal, making it uncomfortable to work.

What is Virtual Sexual Harassment?

There seems to be a mix of emotions, relief for those who had experienced inappropriate behaviour in their workplace and confusion for those who are currently facing variations of virtual sexual harassment. The “new normal” of digitalization brings with it a direct visual entry into privacy via the increased number of video calls and the increased communication on other communication platforms.

Working from home might be a small change for few, but many employees are concerned about unacceptable behaviours from other employees or their superiors or other persons from work, through digital modes of communication. Incidents such as these can take place through social media platforms such as WhatsApp, LinkedIn, Email, Instagram, and so on. Any correspondence, messages, inappropriate jokes, audio or video recordings which are unwelcome and sexually coloured and are sent, transmitted or conveyed through any electronic means also amount to sexual harassment at the virtual workplace. In addition to inappropriate verbal and physical encounters, the above also involves unwanted and unwelcome digital interactions at the virtual workplace. The aggrieved person has the right to seek redressal. Such incidents which take place via electronic means while working from home are as important a case as any other forms of sexual harassment at the office workplace.

The Prevention of Sexual Harassment of Women at the Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 includes work from home under its definition of workplace. To dwell into the provisions of the Act, Section 2(o)(vi) expressly defines a workplace. The section includes the premises of the home in its definition. It is, therefore, extendable to and goes beyond the four walls of the office premises, thereby applying to the virtual world too. Thus, during these trying times of COVID-19, working from home and communication on electronic devices and platforms for discharging duties at the virtual workplace in a professional capacity are included in the definition of workplace.

Non-Physical Forms of Sexual Harassment

Now it is important to have a discussion on the non-physical forms of sexual harassment that the Act recognizes. It is important to understand what non-physical forms of sexual harassment includes and means. An important point to be noted regarding virtual forms of sexual harassment is the lack of a physical link between the alleged attacker and the victim which makes it easier to say things one wouldn’t in person.

For instance, an employee who wants to ask another for a date but is too afraid may send a sexually suggestive email/message instead because they don’t have to face their co-worker in person. Another instance could be an employee feeling uncomfortable regarding the video calls with her supervisor/ boss because of inappropriate comments such as “push back the camera I am unable to see your full body”.

Under-reporting of sexual harassment cases

Victims/ aggrieved persons tend to turn a blind eye to such conducts which take place on the virtual platforms, they are hesitant whether to file a complaint with the Internal Committee. It is important to keep in mind that in sexual harassment instances victims tend to remain silent and not report as a majority believe that their report would not be taken seriously or even addressed, while there are some who are afraid that reporting such cases would put their jobs at risk.

Another pertinent point that needs to be kept in mind currently is the COVID-19 ripple effect – the fear of losing their jobs, pay cuts are additional factors due to which victims refrain from filing a complaint of sexual harassment when they are working from home. Several victims have also reported that they fear that if they take the case forward, they might be causing more trouble. It is essential to create awareness and sensitisation regarding virtual sexual harassment and help build confidence with employees regarding the redressal mechanisms.

The current “new normal” raises concerns and the specific need for guidelines for identifying, sensitizing and addressing virtual forms of sexual harassment while working from home. Companies should amend their company sexual harassment policy, and communicate the current additions to the policy. Rules and regulations should be formulated against unaccepted behaviour to provide ample information to every employee as to the acceptable decorum, behaviour, dress code, language and attitude while working from home. An open-door policy must be followed for work from home scenarios too. Every unwelcome sexual conduct is a violation of a safe workplace.

Endnote:

1) Sue Scheff & Melissa Schorr. (2017). Shame Nation: The Global Epidemic of Online Hate. Sourcebooks, Inc.

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

-This blog has been written by Roshni Mandal who was a participant of the POSH virtual training course conducted by SHLC.  Roshni is law graduate from School of Law, Christ, Bangalore (2019) and Masters of Law (LL.M.), with specialization in Cross-border Business and Finance Law at Singapore Management University (SMU), July 2020. 

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