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#WORK FROM HOME

WFH and Virtual Sexual Harassment

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Anupamaa V - Managing Partner AVRC Legal and chief trainer UCS (which specialises in POSH training)

27-Oct-2020

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The employee may think he or she is at home and wear clothes which are not fully covered and this could be uncomfortable to the other female colleague who is also on the call and this may result in sexual harassment. The most important aspect we need to remember over here is, the intention of the person committing the act is of less relevance as against how the victim feels. The definition is very clear; any unwelcome physical, verbal or nonverbal conduct of sexual nature. Accordingly, it is not the intention but the conduct that matters. Other examples of virtual harassment include insisting on a woman employee coming on video during the night hours, sending pictures with scantily clad clothes etc.

Have you not heard the statement “The new normal, Work From Home” over and over again in the last 7 months? What is then the ‘new normal’ when it comes to sexual harassment at workplace?

In the recent past I have heard several comments, that instances of sexual harassments cannot be there this year because people are working from home and sexual harassments happen only when we are in brick and mortar offices. This is not the case. True physically people maybe at home but unfortunately 80% of the people are living in a virtual world, they are all alone there, are they safe then? What is sexual harassment then in a virtual world?

Let me explain what a workplace is, under the Sexual Harassment of Women (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act 2013 (Act). The definition of workplace though elaborately defined under the Act, in simplified terms is where the employee performs work, which includes a house as well. Now let us look at the definition of sexual harassment:

  1. physical contact and advances; or
  2. a demand or request for sexual favours; or
  3. making sexually coloured remarks; or
  4. showing pornography; or
  5. any other unwelcome physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of sexual nature.

A bare reading of the above definition shows that, except for point No.(i), the rest of the acts can happen irrespective of whether the workplace is a physical one or a virtual one. Any of the above acts can happen even during this period when employees are working from home.

However, what do you think will be the “new” form of sexual harassment during this period of work from home? Why do you think it will happen?

During this period of “New Normal” let us consider some scenarios that could be considered as harassment. Some may be intentional and some unintentional and therefore awareness and sensitivity is the key here. For example, coming on the video with just under undergarments on, like the vests, could amount to sexual harassment. The employee may think he or she is at home and wear clothes which are not fully covered and this could be uncomfortable to the other female colleague who is also on the call and this may result in sexual harassment. The most important aspect we need to remember over here is, the intention of the person committing the act is of less relevance as against how the victim feels. The definition is very clear; any unwelcome physical, verbal or nonverbal conduct of sexual nature. Accordingly, it is not the intention but the conduct that matters. Other examples of virtual harassment include insisting on a woman employee coming on video during the night hours, sending pictures with scantily clad clothes etc.

The present scenario is new to all of us. Most of us are bottled up at home, there is the fear of losing one's job, those with a job are working for longer hours, and the much needed change of going out and meeting colleagues and the longing to be back at home is gone. A loss of a loved one due to the pandemic coupled with work from home which includes kids, parents, siblings, and innumerable zoom calls, has made the situation tough for people. More so for the one’s staying alone at home. Often such pressures and disturbances can make people depressed. As a result of such stress and mental pressure there are high chances of increased sexual harassment and otherwise. While organisations

can relax because there is less pressure on them financially as a result, of employees working from home, employers have to be mindful of the effects this can have on employees as well.

It is a crucial time for the organisation as well, considering that employees are all working remotely, the employer is still obliged to ensure that a colleague does not harass a woman colleague and I am sure your immediate question is how do I do that? There are several steps to ensure that such harassments do not happen.

  • Firstly, please bring in a policy with respect to work from home. Of course, many organisations may already be having a work from home policy; however the scenario back then and right now are very different. Accordingly relook into the policy;
  • Please ensure that work from home policy also addresses sexual harassments during work from home. If not at least amend the existing sexual harassments policy to include and to make it applicable to virtual workplaces as well;
  • Educate and make the employees aware on how to connect with the Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) until the employees are working from home. A survey that we carried out with the sample base of 1000 employees showed that 61% if the employees had no idea how to contact the ICC in case they are faced by an act of harassment while working at home;
  • Educate employees on virtual etiquettes, make employees aware of what could amount to sexual harassment while working at home, conduct awareness program and make team leaders responsible to check on the well being of the colleagues reporting to them. Recently I was speaking to a software developer and he said “In the beginning we used to be loaded with programs to ensure we do not feel lonely and to raise positivity, now we are back in the rat race, all programs have stopped and work from home is no longer fun”.

The “New Normal” is here to stay for some time, life however goes on and we as human beings are

blessed to adapt to critical changes which is a win-win situation for all.