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HR Tips to Nip Online Sexual Harassment in the Bud

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HR Tips to Nip Online Sexual Harassment in the Bud

In the last decade or so, the whole idea of the workplace has changed. No doubt there has been a wide spectrum of approaches to what defines a workplace —  like for instance, how long one should stay in the office, or whether to work on weekends or offering flexibility in the work schedule or working from co-working spaces. The pandemic has however bridged many of these differences faster than we were prepared for and everything is gone virtual & digital!

A key aspect of work from home has been using more digital platforms effectively. Everything from planning to presentations and meetings is being done virtually since the past year. Without physical contact, it may feel like you have more privacy and instances of sexual harassment would reduce; but it has been the exact opposite.

It was only as recently as 2013 that the Indian system legally acknowledged sexual harassment in the workplace. While the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 (“POSH Act”) aims at providing every woman with a safe, secure and dignified working environment, proper implementation is still a challenge. Most employers have put in place a policy to handle sexual harassment though they still grapple with a large number of grey areas. To add to this, how does one address online sexual harassment?

In online interactions, employees— both men and women — tend to be more relaxed as there’s a feeling that nobody is watching. Conversations, even official conversations have a casual undertone. The pandemic situation has also led to an increase in personal conversations among colleagues. The computer or laptop or mobile screen creates a perception of distance between individuals, and employees tend to pull their guards down. What further complicates the matter is the fact that sexual harassment is a highly subjective experience – what might be ok for one may not be ok for another. All of these factors put together makes the workplace more vulnerable to instances of online sexual harassment.

What is online sexual harassment?

Well, it is no different from offline sexual harassment except for the fact that it does not involve sexual harassment by way of any physical touch. Any form of verbal or no-verbal conduct that has a sexual undertone can amount to online sexual harassment. Some common example: sending inappropriate emoticons, sharing double meaning messages or visuals, inappropriate virtual backgrounds, request for a video call at odd hours, asking someone what they are wearing right now, making lewd comments on social media, etc.

Bottom line – no matter the type of platform or intensity of sexual harassment, an employee who is facing any kind of sexual harassment is likely to experience stress or discomfort or anxiety or emotional trauma or anger or fear or distraction or embarrassment or low self-esteem or all of them.

Online sexual harassment is in a way a kind of ‘invisible harassment’ as only the aggrieved employee experiences the impact. Therefore, the first step to prevention is to identify the harassment and then guide the employee towards redressal.

What can HR do to help?

Help employees identify online sexual harassment:

It is important to help employees to distinguish between being friendly online and when they may be crossing the line. For example, one employee may send friends requests to another employee despite the request not being accepted the first time. Sometimes, such a request may be blocked and then the employee may send requests from another account or number. These types of behaviours are a big red flag, and if any employee is being made to feel physically unsafe in any way, it is necessary to take immediate action. Helping the employee name what they are experiencing not only signals that it’s a tangible problem but can also help HR take appropriate action.

Creating awareness about welcome behaviours and those that are unwelcome can go a long way in prevention online sexual harassment in your organisation. HR should continually conduct more awareness sessions in any form – be it through internal emails, and other communication, like poster campaigns, emailers, or WhatsApp messages. Make use of other internal communication channels – intranet, email from senior organisation members, digital posters, etc. to set the tone about the right code of conduct.

Make a quick intervention to arrest online sexual harassment:

Matters of sexual harassment are very delicate and only in rare cases do employees come forward early enough to seek guidance and support. It is largely the responsibility of HR to watch out for early signs and make it comfortable for employees to speak up. Here are some classic indicators of sexual harassment (online or otherwise) that HR must watch out for and stay ahead of the game:

– Is any employee not participating as much in online team gatherings? For instance, leaving a team call halfway, or avoiding coming on video despite repeated requests?

– Is there something odd about their behaviour in social media? Have they suddenly become quiet, or deleted some accounts? Or has there been an outburst on social media or a subtle message on social media that can give some clues?

– Is there a sudden marked change in behaviour? For example, are they avoiding working with a certain person, or are they offering vague responses when asked about a certain person?

– Are there unusual emotional outbursts that their team members have reported?

– Do they seem disinclined to participate in non-work related team activities as well?

– Is there a noticeable slip in performance, in addition to the unusual behaviour?

– Do they seem nervous in online interactions?

If any employee displays some or all of these behaviours, it does not necessarily mean sexual harassment. However, these are telling signs that need more probing.

Encourage employees to keep track of documentary evidence:

Some common tactics of online sexual harassment include lewd comments, digital stalking, demand for sexual favours, threats of physical and sexual violence, impersonation, sending unsolicited pornography, message bombing, and many more. When any such instances are experienced the immediate response usually is to avoid or delete such communication.

Each of these – blocking, muting and reporting are distinct actions on social media. While valuable, these tools are not absolute. You can block accounts (so they cannot communicate with or follow you), but it can escalate the abuse. You can sometimes mute accounts or even specific posts or words (so you don’t have to see them). But muting can mask threats you may need to monitor. Sometimes, the employee may report online sexual harassment if it violates a platform’s terms and is taken down, you could lose valuable evidence. That’s why it’s critical to document abuse before reporting it.

Employees must be encouraged to save emails, voicemails, and texts. Take screenshots on social media and copy direct links whenever possible. If they are subject to online sexual harassment repeatedly by a specific individual or group, it is necessary to create a log, which can help see patterns and build evidence to pursue legal action.

Enlist more employee to champion the cause

Sometimes, the anonymity afforded by the internet, alongside the proliferation of fake accounts, can make it very hard to judge. At times, some actions could be a case or mere misinterpretation and all it needs is a mediated conversation to iron out the differences. Someone has to play the mediators role. Of course, such a person must be equipped with the knowledge about the subject, must be skilled to mediate maturely and must be trained in a set process that can be followed to arrive at a mutually acceptable outcome.

At the end of the day, one cannot just depend on HR – you need more people to champion the cause of sexual harassment to help prevent it. You could enlist manager participation or peer participation voluntarily, which can help make it more comfortable for an employee to speak about what they may be facing. The idea is to ensure everybody has a go-to person in case something arises.

Net-net, my advice to everyone in leadership roles, encourage employees to stay informed, come forward with their grievances and address the issue head-on. Invest time to equip your employees on ‘cyber hygiene’. Only then will your workplace be free from sexual harassment and you will build a culture that is safe for all employees.

At Yellow Spark, we can help you develop a strong policy and conduct interactive workshops to prevent and address matters related to sexual harassment both online and offline. Reach out to us at contact@yellowspark.in.

Author Profile: Deepam Yogi is an adventurer at heart, socially conscious in her gut and professionally a strategic consultant. She co-founded Yellow Spark to support organisations to build workplaces that people love being a part of. Deepam describes herself as a shy yet opinionated writer and firmly believes that most answers to complex issues lie in simple communication.