From Workplace to Cyber-Workspace: Practical Challenges Under Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace

A Postgraduate in Psychology, Maya’s interests lie in researching and writing on Prevention of Sexual Harassment at Workplace apart from writing and researching on gender equality, counselling psychology and use of psychology in creating healthy workplaces.

It’s been almost six months since corporates in India adopted remote working. It came with its own challenges; difficulty in balancing home and work, concerns about data security and collaboration issues are examples. But by now, remote working has grown on us and we have learnt to accept it.Though many things changed when we went from workspace to cyber-workspace, one thing that did not change was ‘sexual harassment’. Complaints on SexualHarassment have seen a meteoric rise during the remote work period.

While we have overcome most of the challenges posed by the work from home situation, preventing sexual harassment needs more work. Let’s have a look at three of the significant challenges organizations face in relation to handling online harassment.

Lack of Clarity about the Law
‘Does the law ask the organization to protect employees from sexual harassment when working remotely?’ is a question raised by many employers. Two other similar questions are:
- Does the organization have the authority to handle harassment occurring outside the office premise?
- Should the organization handle it?

The first challenge we are talking about is the lack of clarity about the law and the resultant confusion of the employers on when and when not to intervene.

To know why these questions arise, let’s have a look at how the POSH Act defines sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment is any unwelcome physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of sexual nature. The definition, however, has not included communication via electronic media outside workplace or work hours. Additionally, the definition of workplace includes accommodation arranged by the company but does not say anything about remote working or working from home.

In this context, if an employee sends an offensive message to his/her co-worker via WhatsApp while both of them are working from home, is it considered sexual harassment at workplace? The act did not occur in the workplace nor did it happen via an official communication tool.

This example explains the confusion organizations face when handling sexual harassment complaints.

To overcome this challenge, let’s use a rule of thumb. If an employee is subjected to sexual harassment from (I) anyone who the organization has a business relationship with and (ii) if not intervening can deteriorateemployees relationship with the organization and co-workers, the organization should intervene and redress the complaint.

Questions about workplace, work hours, and others can be kept aside if these two conditions are met.

Inability to Complete Investigation on Time
Another important challenge posed by the remote working situation is the delay in investigations. There are several reasons to it.

Like mentioned above, working from home has given rise to many operational and technical issues and the management gets too caught up finding solutions for them. Amidst this chaos, IC and the management might decide to postpone something so serious like investigation of a sexual harassment complaint till the situation is under control.

Another reason for delay is the hesitation of the IC and the parties involved in the complaint to attend virtual investigation. Lack of privacy to conduct confidential investigations, difficulty in collaborating with other IC members, fear that minute details will be missed and truth will not be found when investigating virtually are some reasons that make the IC prefer an in-person interview to conduct investigations. IC members also express empathy and provide emotional support to the interviewees if required. It is easier to do so while conversing in-person than in a virtual meeting. The reason for the hesitation from complainant and respondent is the concerns aboutconfidentiality and data breach. Having to talk about such sensitive topic while the family is around also holds them back from participating in the investigation

While these reasons have rationale behind them, procrastinating investigation can worsen the situation in many ways. Delay in the investigation gives the harasser a sense of power giving him/her the belief that he/she is invincible. This would encourage him/her to repeat the harassing behaviour resulting in a hostile and toxic culture within the organization. Employee morale will be negatively affected impacting productivity, employee welfare and reputation of the organization.

Since delay in investigations have such ramifications, investigation has to be conducted within the timeframe mandated by the POSH Act, which is 90 days from the receipt of the complaint.

As a solution to overcome this challenge, management should choose the right communication platform for conducting the interviews for the investigations. Ensure that the platform has excellent security and brief those employees participating in the investigation about the safe use of the platform before the interview. IC members can collect the documents that are to be submitted by complainant and respondent prior to the interview to avoid any confusions during the conference call organized for the investigation.

In case the complainant, respondent or the witness would like to have a private conversation only with the IC members, make arrangements for the same to ensure comfort during the interview. Schedule the time for interviews after consulting with the parties involved in the investigation.

Finally, keeping a check on eavesdropping is difficult when having a virtual investigation. Though the platform will inform who has joined the call, we cannot rule out the possibility of someone sitting next to the participants andlistening to the conversation. While there is a limit to which the authorities can prevent this, the host of the meeting can request a formal declaration from all the participants that the information shared during the meeting will be kept confidential and that they will not make any attempts to record the meeting in secret.

Trainings Lack Comprehensiveness
The POSH Law mandates to take measures to sensitize and create awareness among the employees about the POSH Law. Complying to this, several organizations conduct training regularly. However, most of these trainings usually address physical harassment and offensive behaviours that take place when the employees are interacting personally. Aspects of harassment and bullying in the cyber workplace and protection against them are not covered in many of the trainings.

The result of missing such a small, but significant detail is that employees are unsure when to complain. For example, even though an employee felt uncomfortable listening to her colleagues having an inappropriate discussion in a conference call, she does not report because the POSH Training she attended did not mention anything about protection against sexual harassment while working from home.

Such lack of awareness also may result in employees indulging in inappropriate behaviour without realizing that their act is unacceptable. Conducting training without enough information will not solve the issue of sexual harassment.

Organizations should consider updating the training to include aspects about protection against virtual harassment and the redressal mechanism while working from home to prevent harassing behaviours online.

Another challenge related to training and awareness is sensitizing newly recruited employees and interns about the law. While online training will definitely educate the employees about what is acceptable in the workplace and how to file a complaint, this is not enough. Training will not yield the desired results if the workplace culture does not convey the same meaning. To communicate the organization’s commitment towards safe and harassment-free
workplace, leaders should communicate with the employees and reinforce that the organization protects them from harassment at all circumstances.

Such lack of awareness also may result in employees indulging in inappropriate behaviour without realizing that their act is unacceptable

Sexual harassment at workplace is a menace that needs immediate attention. With this changing work style, organizations must evolve with the situation and adopt innovative solutions to fight this menace. Attending to the most important challenges can contribute significantly to the mission of preventing sexual harassment.