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Sexual harassment in the virtual workplace is prevalent, and damaging. Here's what companies are doing to prevent and address it

What forms of sexual harassment are employees reporting, as they work from anywhere and get on virtual calls often? How are organizations guarding against these virtual forms of sexual harassment?

May 26, 2021 / 09:52 AM IST

The state of Goa has filed an appeal to contest journalist Tarun Tejpal's acquittal. Tejpal, who was arrested in 2013 on charges of sexual assault of a woman who was his junior colleague at Tehelka magazine, was acquitted by the District and Sessions Court at Mapusa, Goa, on May 21, 2021. Following this, the Network of Women in Media, India, had issued a statement in solidarity with the woman, applauding “her courage and determination to pursue justice”.

They wrote, “The state of Goa intends to challenge the acquittal and file an appeal in the High Court; the struggle for justice will continue. Even as we await the judgement for an in-depth critique, we continue to stand with all survivors of sexual assault and harassment, and pledge to strengthen our struggle to ensure safety for women at work.”

The Tejpal case predates the pandemic, of course. Yet as we navigate a new normal, organizations must ask themselves: how are we addressing the issue of sexual harassment at the workplace when employees are working from home due to the Covid-19 pandemic? Is the digital environment safer because there is no physical interaction between leaders and subordinates? Are there any forms of sexual harassment that are unique to the online space, which employees and companies may not have prioritized before? What can be done to eliminate abuse of power, and empower employees to speak out against abusive behaviours?

Indeed, colleagues are communicating with each other using various digital platforms and some of these are being abused to share unsolicited personal messages that comment on the recipient’s looks or use kiss emojis that make the recipient uncomfortable. Making requests for unnecessary late night phone calls under the pretext of work, sending nude photographs, making sexual advances through private messaging during work calls, stalking, taking screenshots of women during video calls and circulating them are also examples of online sexual harassment.

Recognise the problem


“One change that I have noticed is that many employers are beginning to recognize that virtual sexual harassment exists and it needs to be handled,"  says Asiya Shervani. She works with organizations to “activate a diversity, equity and inclusion-based vision”, and is an external member in some Internal Complaints Committees (ICC) set up under the 2013 Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, also known as the PoSH Act. She has handled virtual investigations during the pandemic.

Shervani says: "Previously, physical forms of sexual harassment were taken more seriously than online harassment.” She adds, “Since Covid-19, there is a greater emphasis on mental and emotional health and well-being, and as part of that, sexual harassment is being discussed as a major stressor.”

Upasana Raina, vice-president and human resources head, GI Group India, clarifies that the definition of sexual harassment remains the same whether it happens in a physical work environment or a virtual setting. “If a person engages in behaviour that is perceived to be of a sexual nature, and such behaviour is unwelcome, then it is sexual harassment,” she says.

Raina says that companies must be ready to tackle sexual harassment at three different levels - prevention, prohibition and redressal. She says, “We cannot let down our guard just because employees are not meeting face to face in the physical office. Perpetrators are always looking for new ways to harass, and we have to remain vigilant."

Shervani says that companies should not use the lockdown as an excuse to neglect cases of sexual harassment. "There have been cases involving people who have never met face to face. Employees in their 20s and 30s who have been hired recently are getting to know each other via only online platforms, and often texting late into the night. Sometimes, the chat gets sexual very quickly and lines are crossed resulting in abuse and blackmail,” she says.

Train and educate

Some organizations, like SAGE India, require all new hires to go through a PoSH training. Additionally, every employee has to take an annual refresher course. Shalini Singh, director, publishing services and human resources, SAGE India, says that sensitization programmes must provide clarity on what actions, gestures and behaviours are inappropriate and offensive, and constitute sexual harassment, because employees may not be aware.

She says, “Sensitization is important at all levels, especially at the managerial and leadership levels so that there is a culture of fairness and respect in the organization. We do not believe that harassment is faced only by women, so our internal policy against sexual harassment protects people of all genders. We also have a third-party anti-harassment and anti-bullying policy to protect our staff from being harassed by authors, editors, vendors and partners.”

What are some concrete steps to be taken while setting up protocols for virtual interactions? Elsa Marie D'silva, founder of Red Dot Foundation, which conducts trainings on gender sensitization and prevention of sexual harassment with corporate clients, says, "During virtual meetings, it's best to keep the background neutral without nude paintings in the room, intimate apparel drying on a clothesline, or any other object that can be perceived as sexual.”

She adds that there have been recent instances wherein employees have taken work calls in the bathroom, or while lying in bed wearing clothes that are considered unsuitable for work meetings. “Organizations must spell out boundaries that need to be respected when employees are working in a digital environment,” she says. The idea of boundaries is not limited to punitive action; it fosters a healthy atmosphere and the well-being of employees.

Some organizations have faced push back from employees who believe that trainings related to sexual harassment are unnecessary during the pandemic because people are working remotely. Raina does not agree. She believes that communication and reiteration are vital.

According to her, just one training is not enough if an organization wants to go beyond the bare minimum level of legal compliance and create a workplace that is safe for all. She says, “In our internal communications, we regularly talk about protocols such as wearing appropriate clothing for virtual calls, not having late night meetings, and having open dialogue around issues instead of choosing silence so that things do not escalate further."

Empower and support

Speaking of her work as an adviser on prevention and redressal of sexual harassment to IT companies, educational institutions, hospitals and advertising agencies, Shervani emphasizes that dialogue can help organizations build a work culture that questions and eliminates behaviours which are conducive to authoritarian leadership, bullying and exploitation.

She says, “Organizations need to learn how to recognize red flags and not only take action against perpetrators but also empower people within the workplace to speak up. Bystanders who stay quiet or turn the other way are enablers of harassment.”

Support from co-workers can go a long way in encouraging survivors to speak up. In Anna Patty’s article titled “Working from home can stifle sexual harassment complaints” for The Sydney Morning Herald, Peter Wilson of the Australian Human Resources Institute mentions that the virtual workplace isolates employees from support networks of colleagues and confidantes. This increases the risk of sexual harassment.

Red Dot Foundation's D'silva says that employers must be cognizant of the fact that employees may live in houses where they do not have a room to themselves, or any other kind of privacy. Therefore, managers must let their employees keep the camera switched off if they need to.

D’silva adds, Organizations must be considerate towards women and LGBTQ people who face violence from their family members, and therefore do not have a safe work environment. This can affect their productivity, and they need support. Sometimes, employees cannot be available for digital meetings because they have a bad Internet connection or they need to share their device with a child attending online school. They need to be trusted."

Roop Sen and Uma Chatterjee are the founding members of a leadership and organizational management consulting agency called Change Mantras, and co-authors of the book Power, Sexuality and Gender Dynamics at Work (2020). Sen believes that abuse of power is heightened in organizations that do not talk openly about the nature of hierarchies and how they impact professional equations. “In some workplaces, the boss or power holder is a parental figure who addresses the employees as ‘my boys’ or ‘my girls’,” he says.

Sen says that deep and lasting change can happen only when organizational culture is addressed as a whole because patriarchal, misogynist and homophobic work cultures shape relationships and processes. He says, “You cannot guilt, shame or intimidate people into adopting healthy behaviours. They need time and support to let go of their conditioning. That can happen only in an environment that is empathetic, non-judgmental and accepting.”

This is a long-term exercise. How can individuals be held accountable in the present so that they do not continue with abusive behaviours that affect the well-being of others at work? How can organizations send out a strong message that harassment will not be tolerated?

Prevention and proof-gathering

Supreme Court Advocate N. S. Nappinai, who is also the founder of Cyber Saathi, an initiative focusing on cyber safety in digital spaces, points out that several employers assume that “sexual harassment is a lesser crime when it happens in the virtual world.” She says, “It is only the medium that has changed, not the intention of the perpetrator or the nature of harm caused to the victim. The existing laws against sexual harassment and cybercrime are sufficient to cover all forms of online abuse.”

She says that gaps exist not in the law but in the perception of employers, and advises them to review and revise existing sexual harassment policies to explain the applicability of sexual harassment laws to virtual spaces and to explain consequences of violations.

She adds, "Unlike harassment in physical workplaces that required the victim or eyewitnesses to provide evidence, harassment in the workplace can be tracked through digital footprints, video recording and screenshots. The best way to counter sexual harassment is through deterrence. Employers must provide simple and transparent policy documents with concrete scenarios to employees so that they understand legal consequences of their actions.”

Some organizations also use digital tools to keep a watch on their employees and prevent sexual harassment. EmpMonitor is one such employee monitoring software with screen recording and web activity tracking features.

Deepa Ghosh, CEO, EmpMonitor, says employers can use it to “track employee texts and emails which can help safeguard employees from cyberbullying and sexual harassment by providing solid proof in the human resource investigations in the case of any worker’s allegations.” Whatever the employee types can be recorded using the keylogger feature.

Of course, there are other implications of this technology that are outside of the purview of this discussion. To list a few: employers can use these trackers to get updates about offline time, in which employees were not available. Employers can set a specific location range. If employees are out of range, they will not be able to connect to EmpMonitor. The software also prohibits access to particular websites.

Ghosh says, “Pornographic and gambling site pages pose significant business threats, including the danger of ransomware downloads from gambling sites, as well as the threat of sexual assault and abusive work culture. EmpMonitor will help limit access to such sites by website blocking.” Is this safety, surveillance or both? Only time will tell.

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Chintan Girish Modi is a writer, educator and researcher who tweets @chintan_connect)
first published: May 26, 2021 08:48 am
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