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Home / Opinion / Views /  Opinion | Act now to stop harassment in the virtual workplace

Covid-19 has changed everything, including work routines. For many, cubicles, meeting rooms, coffee stations, never-ending conferences and after-hours drinks are gone, replaced by home computer screens.

For some women who routinely endured propositions, lewd looks and language at work, even groping and physical intimidation, social distancing has brought a reprieve. But is sexual harassment now behind us? Not entirely. Newer, subtler forms of sexual harassment seem to be on the rise.

Employees now find themselves under the constant gaze of the camera, be it Zoom or Webex, Google Meet or Skype.

As a consultant and an external member on sexual harassment committees, I have heard from many women who are experiencing a new kind of harassment. A Mumbai-based sales professional working in a multinational company, for example, said she dreads weekly check-ins with her boss. As she says, he tells her, “Adjust your camera, I can only see your 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 me.

In my work in this space, this is just one of the stories women have told me in recent weeks. They cite embarrassing enquiries about what they are wearing, or about their personal lives, and unwelcome calls in the middle of the night, or pressure to attend after-hours Zoom parties. Many remain unsure about what counts as harassment when it is only virtual, and whether they can raise it with their Human Resources department.

Tasneem Biviji is a Mumbai-based corporate training professional from CETC, an organization that facilitates sensitisation workshops. She says the new “workplace" has led to a “blurring of personal and professional, formal and informal lines". “Earlier in the office, the physical spaces lent formality to work," she says. “Now with the transition to the intimate home spaces, an informal environment has set in."

With computer cameras on, bosses, colleagues and customers are being brought into the intimacy of homes. After-hours and late-night calls that interrupt family time are becoming commonplace. Time tables for work and family time have become porous.

Gathering data on harassment since the covid-19 lockdown began is a challenge because many continue to suffer in silence. A survey released in March by the Network of Women in Media, India, and Gender at Work, found that over one-third of its 456 respondents from the media industry had experienced some form of sexual harassment at their workplaces, and over half of them did not report the incident.

Women hesitate to come forward because they doubt they will be believed or have their complaints taken seriously. The problem is always one of proving your case.

Now, with the covid pandemic and rising fears of layoffs, furloughs and pay cuts, coming forward carries additional risks. Some with the power to punish may believe they can harass and bully with impunity.

The law under the Prevention of Sexual Harassment (POSH) Act, 2013, should provide protection. It clearly defines sexual harassment as inappropriate physical as well as gestural and verbal behaviour. Companies that fail to take steps to enforce it can face punishment, but the infrastructure needed for sensitive and respectful workplaces is still a work in progress, unfortunately.

Now that so many are working from home, it will be important to stay ahead of the curve and see that the law shields such workers as well.

The good news is that the law’s definition of the workplace is a broad enough definition to cover work from home. It includes any place visited by an employee arising out of or during the course of employment, including transportation provided by the employer for undertaking such a journey. “Home" fits in as a new workplace under (Sec 2(o) of POSH Act.

The law even facilitates online investigation and provides for virtual handling of cases. But all this is new territory for companies in India.

A starting point would be for companies to redraft their sexual harassment policies and clearly use the term “work from home" as indicative of a formal workplace. They also need to inform employees of procedures that can be used to redress cases arising out of working remotely.

Companies should spell out do’s and don’ts, like what can be shared on social media, decorum for online meetings, language, dress code, camera use, and what constitutes a work day. They need to explain what a “hostile work environment" means now that work has shifted to home.

They need to show employees where to draw the line between work and private life, and establish their own liability as employers if they cross that line. Sensitization workshops, largely abandoned during the lockdown, should start again. These would help people navigate this uncharted territory.

The sooner organizations pick up from where they had left off and reinforce new terms of engagement, the better it would be for all. Covid-19 is still spreading and remote working is unlikely to taper off anytime soon. Nor will sexual harassment fade away on its own. We need clear messaging from top management, and a commitment to zero tolerance of sexual harassment anywhere.

Masooma Ranalvi is a lawyer who helps organize sensitization workshops on sexual harassment.

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