An employee shows up shirtless to a virtual meeting with his manager, a woman. In another instance, an employee takes a screenshot of his female colleague. In another incident, a manager insists his female colleague to attend a meeting at 11 p.m. and switch on the video mode so that he can see her properly. When she finally does, she realizes he is intoxicated.
|| Rhythima Agrawal
Amid COVID-19, millions of people moved from their offices and started working from home to protect themselves from the ongoing pandemic. The employees working from home did not realize that they were inviting supervisors, colleagues, clients and customers into their living rooms or bedrooms unknowingly. Though the camera and internet helped build an informal work environment, it has also brought home an old disease that is yet to be cured; workplace sexual harassment.
A study by ComplyKaro Services showed that a business magazine named India Inc reported a 14% increase in sexual harassment complaints in 2017 as compared to 2018. The discussions on Whatsapp among the office employees asking about the type of clothes have replaced long stares in the office. Instead, unwelcome calls or messages at odd hours have become more common, and sexist remarks have moved to the virtual workspace.
In March and April, Cohere Consultants saw cases like the pressure on women colleagues to turn on video after office hours, taking screenshots during video calls without permission and circulating them on social media, use of sexist or abusive language in con-calls and cyber stalking. A lawyer agrees that the perpetrators are in a position of power which gives them an advantage over the victim. Masooma Ranalvi, a lawyer says that the bigger problem is that people don’t realize what the perpetrators are doing is wrong, because most harassment means physical touch.
Many companies are guiding their employees against online harassment through sessions and workshop by guiding them to recognize and avoid unwanted gestures and behaviors during virtual meetings. Various companies have blacklisted certain behavioral actions. PhonePe, NatWest Group India, Razorpay, and Wakefit.co have blacklisted behaviors like; using inappropriate language or gestures during virtual meetings, making sexually colored remarks, and unwarranted requests for video calls after office hours.
Razorpay, a Bangalore-based payment startup is training employees about behaviors which have to be avoided in a remote working environment. Certain changes have been made to the remote working guidelines to include sections that cover the prevention of sexual harassment. Anuradha Bharat, People operations head at Razorpay said, “Managers are also receiving training on various scenarios that can occur and how they can be dealt with”.
Wakefit.co, a Bangalore-based startup, is creating virtual content to drive awareness around sexual harassment in a remote working scenario.” We have initiated discussions and training around situational examples so that employees know what to do if such situations arise”, said Chaitanya Ramalingegowda, cofounder of the Bengaluru-based mattress and sleep solutions startup.
The Prevention of Sexual Harassment (PoSH) Act of 2013 defines sexual harassment as inappropriate physical behavior, including gestural and verbal. The provisions of the PoSH Act apply to the virtual office too. The prohibition of POSH was enacted to ensure safe working spaces for women and to build work environments that respect a working woman’s right to equality of status and opportunity
An expert suggested a solution to deal with virtual sexual harassment.
Anupama.V, a legal consultant and chief trainer at Upceed Consulting Services said that the companies should change their sexual harassment policies and clearly include the term’ work from home‘. She added that companies need to inform employees of procedures to redress cases arising out of working remotely. “The government needs to be more active at the level of enforcement. It is the obligation of companies to take care of their employees, especially right now when they are isolated and don’t know what to do”, said Anupama.