“Work from home” and the challenge of preventing workplace sexual harassment
Dr. Anagha Sarpotdar
Dr. Anagha Sarpotdar has been working on socio-legal aspects of sexual harassment at workplace since 2005. Currently she is the Chairperson of Local Committee, Mumbai City District.
Working from home is now an accepted part of an organisation’s functioning due to the indefinite lockdown. Home has become an extended workplace for many people over the months. Organisations are actively encouraging employees to leverage the various instant online communication platforms available to them, including Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Google Meet and many others. It is central that employees understand their responsibility to communicate in the same way as they would in the workplace thereby complying with all applicable workplace policies.
Though individuals may be physically at home, they continue to operate in a workplace when interacting with colleagues. Despite remote access to each other, complaints of sexual harassment registered during this period range from calls at odd hours, unwarranted requests for video calls, gender biased comments and inappropriate language used in a team meeting. Hence, it is important that employers acknowledge applicability of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevntion, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 to the nuances of a non-traditional workplace.
The objective of the Act is to protect women from sexual harassment along with prevention and redressal of complaints of sexual harassment. The Act creates a concept of extended workplace wherein definition of workplace is not restricted to geographical location. Rather wherever the person is located in the context of work while performing professional duties becomes a workplace. More specifically, the Act defines 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”. Taking into consideration the definition of workplace, human resource departments and heads of business verticals need to ensure that they maintain regular contact with their employees for them to feel connected for reporting unwanted behaviour to the Internal Committee constituted under the Act. Particularly anti-sexual harassment policy also needs to be reiterated and the link provided to it.
Employees should be told that it is a misconduct to use text message, email, or social media in an offensive manner as it amounts to misconduct irrespective of the fact whether employees interact physically or virtually. Messages they send to others should be something that they would be willing to say to the other person on their face in person or via email. If this is not the case, the communication is likely to be perceived as inappropriate. Employees should be informed that all internal communications are stored by the organisation and can be reviewed at a later date. Further it should also be communicated that data will be retained and accessible to the organisation. This should become part of relevant policies and/or employment contracts. If communications software, used by employees, for conference calls (both audio and visual) allow recording, it is needed that all employees are aware of the same or else notification/consent should be sought. HR persons need to emphasise that memes and jokes about work from home scenarios could be offending and that rules of professional etiquette apply though the interaction is through online medium.
Since the Act defines sexual harassment as any physical, verbal and non-verbal conduct of sexual nature there is a possibility that humorous content could be found violating sensibilities of women employees. Official dress code needs to be maintained while employees are connected for work virtually. While operating from the comfort of their home basic workplace norms can be ignored and conversations may become personal giving rise to discomfort. Though employees could be physically at home, while they are connected with each other for work, they are bound by the law and companies should necessarily relay this to employees clearly.
Trainings and awareness sessions with existing employees are done on an ongoing basis, they should also be done with the new recruits, interns and trainees who are being on boarded using online mechanisms. It is crucial that they become informed and sensitised to the expected norms of professional behaviour. Participation in these programmes can be ensured by using interactive material such as videos and case examples based on reported complaints of sexual harassment. Women employees can be informed about their rights guaranteed by the Act and specific provisions of the company anti sexual harassment policy.
Every employee can make efforts to ensure that the virtual working environment is devoid of sexual harassment. Employees can take following steps if they observe sexism and sexual harassment happening to their women employees.
- Reach out to the woman employee who is a recipient of objectionable behaviour or is disturbed due to inappropriate conduct of others using direct messaging. Inform the person that you have noticed the problem and that you will be supporting them if they decide to apply for redressal.
- Intervene in the situation and inform the person indulging in sexually harassing and / or gender biased behaviour to stop it and that it could have consequences as per company policy which is applicable in the work from home scenario.
- Being an eyewitness to the inappropriate behaviour, extend support to the affected woman employee by helping her to document the incident.
- Promptly bring the difficulty to the notice of the HR persons or IC for further action and support.
- Cooperate with the IC if you are summoned by it as a witness during inquiry.
Organisation commitment towards eliminating sexual harassment should be conveyed openly and distinctly. Changes suitable for an online working environment should be made to the anti-sexual harassment policy and other allied organisation policies. It should be ensured that policies are enforced in absence of physical interaction for implementation. Motivate employees to voice their opinions on creating a workplace that has little tolerance to sexism and sexual harassment. Employers should ensure that the Internal Committee constituted according to the Act should remain functional. Internal Committees need to have online meetings with an aim to not only comply with the Act in terms of meeting periodically but to redress reported complaints by conducting inquiry. Additionally, if the reported incident of sexual harassment has happened in the online space then essential communication between complainant and respondent should be officially kept in abeyance till completion of inquiry.
It is for the senior management to build the culture free from sexual harassment by walking the talk. This includes upholding values of the company in words and action, facilitating functioning of the IC and recognising that change in the usual manner of working may lead to certain unexpected situations which should be dealt with a gender sensitive lens and as spirit of the Act.