Is Workplace Sexual Harassment also a Pandemic?

Author: Uma Shankar
Date: 22 Mar, 2021

Incident #1

As part of the buddy system in an organization, an existing team member is assigned with a new lady. During her first week in the new organization, he takes her around the office, introduces her to other team members, gives her an overview about their work - helping her with contacts needed and guiding her to the right team as and when she hits a roadblock. At the end of the first week, he accompanies her for a coffee, during which he casually mentions that he is really glad that she has joined, because unlike the other women in the office, "she is very pretty" and that he feels very privileged to be her first "buddy" in this office. The lady takes offense at this comment and promptly raises a complaint against her team member.

Incident - #2

A manager wanted to maintain a very friendly and casual work environment with his team members. His team comprised largely of women employees. In his attempt to break the ice with his team, he would plan regular outings to theatres and restaurants on weekends. He would take selfies with his team posting them on social media regularly and make jokes about physical appearances, etc. Over time, the ladies slowly started feeling uncomfortable with all of this but could not say no to the weekend outings that their manager had planned as a team activity. They then finally approached their HR representative to raise this as a concern - this incident came under the purview of POSH, so HR re-routed this case to the POSH committee.
In 2020, as a direct consequence of the Covid-19 epidemic, many homes became an extension of the workplace – remote working became the ‘new normal. The suddenness with which the virus broke barriers to make remote working possible, led to lines being blurred – work timings, appropriate professional behavior and casual behavior, work and personal life. During this period, the last thing on anyone’s mind would be workplace sexual harassment.
The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, very clearly indicates that sexual harassment includes such unwelcome acts or behavior (whether directly or by implication) such as Physical contact and advances, a demand or request for sexual favor, sexually coloured remarks, showing pornography or any other unwelcome physical, verbal, or non-verbal conduct of a sexual nature. Verbal harassment like sexual innuendos, other suggestive comments, racial or ethnic slurs, humour and jokes about sex, propositions, and insults or threats can easily occur during a video call or phone call. Similarly, sending offensive or derogatory written material, emailing or texting sexual images, taking screenshots of women employees & sending these screenshots out, spreading sexual rumours, or inappropriate display of the body can also easily occur even during the remote working scenario. Also, by definition, our homes became extensions of the workplace.
Sexual harassment is a consequence of dominance and power in most cases. In others, it is because of sexual objectification which again boils down to cultural approval of violence against the victim. In fact, if anything, looking at how online abuse of women has spiralled out of control, it can be safe to assume that the internet provides a safe veneer behind which sexual perpetrators could hide, but continue doing what they did.
Against this backdrop, sexual harassment still prevails even during the remote working scenario as it would in a workplace environment – however, on account of many victims working remotely, many cases go unreported because the victim might feel isolated, not being able to approach family members, colleagues/friends at work, and even the POSH committee members. This can clearly traumatize. It gravely impacts mental health and emotional wellbeing of victims because of the threat of violence is experienced neurobiologically as violence itself, cortisol levels go up and the limbic system gets hijacked making one unable to function effectively. This clearly has an impact on productivity.

The POSH Committee, therefore, has a higher responsibility during this time in terms of spreading awareness and reaching out to employees proactively.

What does sexual harassment mean?

While many are aware of the broad definition of sexual harassment, small focus groups should be conducted to spread awareness on even the definition of behaviors that constitute sexual harassment – rather than assume that people are aware – and urge employees to share examples around these behaviors. Such confusions become more pronounced when an incident occurs during a remote working scenario because victims will not have a sounding board – either a friend from within their organization or any other trusted member of the organization they could reach out to. Somewhere, virtual focus group sessions, conducted periodically, will give courage to victims to shake off shame, humiliation, and any confusion associated with a sexual harassment incident, encouraging them to come forward and speak up.

What do unwelcome acts or behaviors really mean?

Many a time, victims get tangled up in a lot of self-doubts, even to the extent of thinking that maybe they are overreacting to something that is not so severe or was maybe intended in jest. Also, usually, when a perpetrator is confronted, they trivialize the incident with phrases like – “it was just a joke” or “I didn’t mean it in the way she took it” or “why make such a big deal out of something like this”. There are a few cases where family members discourage victims from speaking out because of the associated stigma. In the current scenario, many such cases could go unreported on account of these factors. During virtual focus sessions, targeted to spread awareness, it, therefore, becomes imperative to stress upon the ‘unwelcomeness’ of the incident, which simply means that it was not welcomed by the victim, and intent is not relevant, only the impact is. It is also important that the victim feels reassured enough to come forward and place the complaint on record.

An approachable POSH committee

The POSH committee is not just on paper on the notice board. The responsibilities of the POSH committee members go beyond the purview of the act in terms of their reach and ability to connect with employees. The sensitivity and stigma associated with sexual harassment incidents make it difficult for victims to talk about it; however, it is easier for them to approach a POSH committee member with whom they feel comfortable sharing. Instilling an aura of trust, confidentiality, and approachability has become one of the unwritten responsibilities of the POSH committee – more so a need during the remote working scenario.
With the innumerable challenges that organizations are facing on account of the sudden shift towards remote working, issues like sexual harassment tend to take a backseat in terms of priority. This is the unfortunate truth. However, despite the operational responsibilities that POSH committee members tend to get burdened with, the requirement to uphold their responsibilities as POSH committee members also, takes equal precedence – the balance must be maintained. Many a time, the extent of involvement of POSH committee members tends to be the reassurance that victims are looking for.
Providing a safe working environment at the workplace goes beyond what is stipulated under the Act of 2013. The Act only guides us towards the bare minimum requirements – a guidepost. The organization has to go the rest of the way to create that culture of trust and safety for all employees.

Biography of the Author

About Author: – Ms Uma Sankar is an HR Leader with over 20 years of professional experience. Her expertise is in HR Operations and Consulting, involving HR policies design, competency mapping, change management, career progression & succession planning, compensation & benefits design & implementation, Performance Management design & implementation. She is partnering with Effilor Consulting Services & Mindmetrics for Management Consulting and OD Consulting. She is also partnering with Interweave to consult and train on Prevention of Sexual Harassment (POSH) at Workplace. She is a Certified EQ Practitioner and also a Charter Member- TiE Kerala.
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