Have you reviewed your POSH policy since people are working remotely?

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Have you reviewed your POSH policy since people are working remotely
Unfortunately and shockingly, the instances of sexual harassment didn’t plummet. On the contrary, we saw a surge in cases of sexual harassment, and with organizations operating virtually,

Since people are working remotely, there would be no cases of sexual harassment

Over the last 2 years, I have heard this statement umpteen number of times, and is no different from what I had expected when the pandemic hit us 2 years back.

With employees working from home, it is logical to assume that with the absence of physical proximity, there will be no physical contact or demand for sexual favours, people are likely to be more mindful of their conduct and choice of words as all interactions would happen on virtual platforms that have features of recording the interaction and evidence getting created.

Unfortunately and shockingly, the instances of sexual harassment didn’t plummet. On the contrary, we saw a surge in cases of sexual harassment, and with organizations operating virtually, the corporate world shrunk further wherein we started receiving complaints of sexual harassment across geographies.

In one of the complaints (some facts have been changed to maintain anonymity), the complainant was based in another country and raised a complaint against an employee of Indian entity, “I raised a concern regarding access issues I was having with my account – basically, I couldn’t log in. He (respondent) then reached out to me right away on our internal messenger so I could better explain the issue. I thought it was a bit odd for him to reach out to me as I thought I was clear in my request for a new password. I then explained the issue in another way to him and he asked for a video call. I didn’t reply to him right away, and he came back to me saying my access was working. I tried logging in but the issue was still there. He then requested to do a video call again, to which I said yes because I thought I didn’t need to turn my camera on. After we did the call, he simply sent me a new password (which made me think the call wasn’t really necessary). This was one of the issues I had with him….”

Other complaints included requests to accept invitations for friendship, to follow, to connect on all social media handles because they attended one virtual team meeting together, request to ‘readjust’ the camera for better viewing,  insisting on video calls late in the night for non-critical tasks, taking photographs of individuals on video in a meeting and circulating it in groups with sexually coloured adjectives, online stalking, sending sexually suggestive emails, wearing clothes with double meaning words/phrases or having them as posters in the background during video calls among others.

Thus, virtual workplaces put spotlight on online experiences of sexual harassment. These incidents were always reported pre-pandemic but the surge in them could be explained by the absence of physical proximity wherein one didn’t have to face the person who is experiencing transgressions and the convenience of staying anonymous as they violate boundaries.

This, in turn, resulted in people engaging in dirty doxing (the act of publicly revealing private personal information about an individual, usually via the internet) and zoombombing (unwanted, disruptive intrusion by the insertion of material that is lewd, obscene in a video-conference call), creating hostile environment. Alarmingly, the hostile environment was created not only by unknown people but also by known, senior people, for instance the Jeffery Toobin case wherein he was masturbating during a team meeting.

Though these incidents fell clearly under the ambit of sexual harassment as per the law, people involved didn’t consider it to be violations at the workplace as people were taking calls from the confines of their home, interactions were taking place on unofficial applications like WhatsApp, Instagram, Snapchat, Slack, Zoom and/or outside working hours.

Delhi High court in the matter of Saurabh Kumar Mallick v. Comptroller & Auditor General of India stated that in cases of sexual harassment at the workplace, it is imperative to take into consideration the recent trend which has emerged with the advancement of information technology. A person can interact or do business conferences with other people while sitting in some other country by means of video-conferencing and thus, a narrow approach cannot be taken in defining the term ‘workplace’ as it would defeat the objective of the Vishaka guidelines. 

This judgment, among others, clarified that it would be considered a violation at ‘workplace’ if the alleged act has taken place between two people who share a working relationship regardless of the place and time of the alleged act.

The prevalence of sexual harassment in virtual workplaces have drawn attention to the importance of reviewing and disseminating the Prevention of Sexual Harassment (POSH) Policy of organizations to ensure examples are included of online sexual harassment and scope of the workplace is clearly explained to educate employees that any interaction with people they have a working relationship with will be considered a workplace.

The policy needs to be complemented with organizing enterprise-wide sensitization programs for employees to know that all policies including the POSH policy are applicable while working remotely/virtually.

As organizations review the policy and content of the training sessions, it would be pertinent to train Internal Committee members on how to conduct inquiries into complaints of sexual harassment virtually keeping in mind the challenges around confidentiality, privacy, and technology.

Virtual working will require organizations to reassess and expand the scope & applicability of their POSH policy to create safe online spaces.

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