Since COVID-19, I have a lot of people asking me to speak about sexual harassment while working from home, and my question is, why only now?
I recently shared an article I had written a couple of days back with a friend on the same subject and her statement was “the topic itself is surprising, harassment during work from home. How can it happen?”
Since March 2020, people have been working from home, and my friend who is also working from home asks me this question yesterday. It not only struck me that organizations are yet to understand that sexual harassment can happen even when working from home, and the important thing to do is to sensitize employees to this effect. Organizations even before COVID-19 have not sensitized employees enough on this subject, because if it had been done, then employees would have been able to at least identify that sexual harassment can happen even while working from home.
For several organizations, compliances with respect to “Sexual Harassment of Women (Prevention, Prohibition, Redressal) Act, 2013 (Act) is the last thing on their list of priorities. However, one needs to know that it takes very little to comply with the Act:
- Creating the sexual harassment policy, gender specific or neutral is a one time act, unless you amend it;
- Setting up the Internal Committee (IC) is a one time act, except when reconstituting it;
- Conducting awareness sessions for employees and orientation session for the IC is an annual requirement; and
- Filing returns should be done annually.
- The compliances under the Act, is much less than an organization being compliant under the Companies Act, 2013 or the Goods and Services Act, 2015, is it not? However, many organizations still remain non-compliant. The reasons for this are manifold:
Some organizations believe, complying with the provisions of the Act, may result in making employees knowledgeable on the subject, which is not needed.
Some set up an IC and have a policy in place, both on paper and both are covered in wraps. Some conduct sessions internally, have a policy, have the IC in place but when it comes to awareness and sensitization, they are hugely lacking in it.
While we all are aware that non-compliance under the Act, will make an organization liable to pay a penalty of INR 50,000/- for the first instance and in case of repeated instances the trade license can be cancelled, compliance under the Act, should not be just on paper, it has to be in letter and spirit too.
COVID-19 times are not easy, not just on women who are juggling multiple responsibilities, but also on men who are all of a sudden confronted with different responsibilities and insecurities that all genders face when it comes to the future at the workplace, or the loss of a dear one. All of these will have a deep impact on the mental health of employees and as a result acts of sexual harassment may only rise even while working from home.
A workplace under the Act is elaborately defined.However In simplified terms, it is where an employee performs work, which includes a house as well. Now let us look at the definition of sexual harassment:
The definition of sexual harassment under the Act, includes any one or more of the following unwelcome acts or behaviour (whether directly or by implication) namely:
(i) physical contact and advances; or
(ii) a demand or request for sexual favours; or
(iii) making sexually coloured remarks; or
(iv) showing pornography; or
(v) any other unwelcome physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of sexual nature.
A reading of the above, clearly shows that, except for point (i) above, all other forms of harassment can happen in the virtual world too. In fact, people are alone right now in the real world, there are no colleagues sitting next to them and it is just the person and the system. Accordingly, working in the virtual world in my opinion is as safe or unsafe as working in a brick and mortar office.
Organizations should therefore strive to build a sensitized workplace not just to comply with the Act, or to just achieve a 100% sexual harassment free workplace, but to also build a better sensitized tomorrow, and to reach a stage where one understands what the ethics of the organization is without the need to be told what is right and wrong, and respecting one another is engrained in their actions.