The issue of workplace harassment has taken on a different form in today’s virtual world of work. Instead of making it easier to avoid harassment, the work-from-home scenario has reimagined it and given birth to new ways of harassment.
Personal comments on people’s social-media handles, inappropriate emojis, virtual stalking, threats about performance ratings, calls at late hours, unsuitable dressing and inappropriate jokes among others can constitute virtual harassment in today’s time.
“There is a need for more education around the whole issue of virtual harassment. POSH training should be mandated for everyone under these new circumstances.”
Balachandar N.V, executive director-HR, Ashok Leyland, mentions, “Things such as insisting on video calls after office hours, calling late at night, appearing in unacceptable attire for meetings and using inappropriate language, all fall under the new form of harassment.”
As we are performing our duties over a variety of platforms today, the idea of a workplace has become fluid, and the boundary between our professional versus personal space has blurred. The implications of this are manifold. Under the garb of official communication, companies today use multiple social-media platforms to connect, and these provide grounds for harassment as well. The ubiquitous availability of such platforms has further facilitated this.
“As the definition of ‘workplace’ has changed, the rules of harassment will also need to change alongside it.”
We are all under a great deal of pressure, in terms of work, and with so much uncertainty of job security, employees are bound to feel vulnerable. All of that along with the stress of worrying about future finances can put many over the threshold when it comes to handling stress.
Sriharsha Achar, HR specialist, says, “There is an overwhelming sense of job insecurity and this can also lead to more harassment. Hence, this has to be made top priority, as it can be nipped in the bud now.”
The anonymity of virtual connect provides a sense of confidence to people to act in ways they would not dare to while in office. Moreover, the stress of it all compounded by the fact that conversations are becoming transactional, may lead a manager to decry or denigrate an employee with inappropriate comments disregarding the situation at the employee’s home.
In essence, harassment in today’s context includes both sexual harassment as well as non-sexual workplace harassment, which has come about because of a breakdown in work-life balance and long working hours.
Chandrashekhar Mukherjee, CHRO, Magic Bus, says, “Due to lack of work-life balance and workplace discipline, new forms of harassment are cropping up which include irregular work timings, lack of etiquette and manners and undue work pressure.”
Here are five examples of what can constitute workplace harassment, in today’s virtual world of work.
Blurring of personal and professional time while at home
There needs to be a discipline with regard to work. A manager cannot call up his employee after stipulated work hours for any clarification unless it is an emergency. Video and audio calls should be scheduled during work hours.
“Due to lack of work-life balance and workplace discipline, new forms of harassment are cropping up which include irregular work timings, lack of etiquette and manners and undue work pressure.”
Pressurising employees with unrealistic delivery expectations
When work conditions are already tough enough, putting further pressure on workers may cause them to undergo undue stress and anxiety, affecting their performance furthermore.
Being unmindful of professional boundaries
Initiating conversations or jokes, while on audio or video calls, can be deemed inappropriate and make others uncomfortable. Working from home has caused us to let our guard down and it may not be possible to always ensure an uninterrupted or neutral background. Comments on the personal aspects of one’s life at home may be uncalled for and cause discomfort to people.
Video calls beyond work hours
Insisting on video calls where unnecessary or video calling beyond work hours is inconvenient for employees, as well as their families in the present situation. Moreover, doing so without the consent of the other person can make people uncomfortable.
Clicking a picture while on call without consent and sharing it on any collaborative or social- media platform may be another cause of discomfort.
“There is an overwhelming sense of job insecurity and this can also lead to more harassment. Hence, this has to be nipped in the bud now.”
Archanaa Singh, SVP-HR, Reliance Broadcast Network, says “As the definition of ‘workplace’ has changed, the rules of harassment will also need to change alongside it.” She mentions how under these new circumstances, employees, including managers and senior leadership, have been undergoing orientation sessions on what constitutes harassment in the virtual world.”
So what are the ways in which organisations and employees can deal with this?
“Virtual sexual harassment can be harder to detect because it takes place online, not out in the open. However, there are ways organisations can protect employees from it,” says Achar.
The first step is for the organisation to display its commitment to a harassment-free workplace, by drafting a preventive policy, which includes online behaviours as well.
Next, employees should be encouraged to share their opinions on ways to make the workplace safer in the context of these new forms of harassment. Senior management should set the tone for anti-harassment at the top.
“The first action is to communicate that POSH is applicable in the WFH context too. After creating this awareness, the internal committee, given their business context, can define what constitutes harassment, and specify instances,” suggests Balachandar.
It is possible to initiate multiple redressal avenues for reporting harassment, such as dedicated phone numbers, e-mail addresses and online forums. However, more than the redressal mechanisms, inclusion of these new forms is more important. The current anti-harassment policy in organisations needs to be updated to include virtual harassment of both sexual and non-sexual nature and circulated among the staff.
“Things such as insisting on video calls after office hours, calling late at night, appearing in unacceptable attire for meetings and using inappropriate language, all fall under the new form of harassment.”
Finally, training employees on what kind of digital conduct is acceptable and not, is also necessary.
Joyeeta Chatterjee, chief people officer, Future Consumers, opines that there is still room for improvement with regard to awareness of acceptable behaviour online. “There is a need for more education around the whole issue of virtual harassment. POSH training should be mandated for everyone under these new circumstances.”
Employees need to be trained to identify online harassment and how to report the same on behalf of themselves or a co-worker. Management training can include information on how to protect themselves, their employees and the organisation as a whole, from the clutches of virtual harassment.
This scenario of remote working is bound to continue into the foreseeable future. To ensure that the success of remote working does not drown in issues of harassment, there is an immediate need to redefine workplace rules and norms. The responsibility on leadership has multiplied with the need for all these issues to be addressed empathetically and with much understanding.