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Protection of employees from online harassment by other employees

July 25, 2021
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This article is written by Shraddha Vasanth, who is pursuing a Diploma in Labour, Employment and Industrial Laws (including POSH) for HR Managers from LawSikho.

“You can kill a person once, but when you humiliate him/ her, you kill him/ her many times over” – The Talmud

Introduction 

Workplace harassment can take many forms, but broadly it means any offensive, threatening, unwelcome act or behaviour of an individual or a group, who could be a senior or colleague or even a sub-ordinate against another individual or a group within the same workplace. While the most prominent form of harassment at the workplace is physical, it is not uncommon to be abused via the intranet or any other electronic medium. 

Even before the setting in of the COVID-19 pandemic induced restrictions, the home had become an extended workplace as employees are constantly expected to attend to the demands of work everywhere, whether they are physically present in the office or even outside of work hours. The pandemic only took this to a whole new level. For a world that is increasingly becoming more technologically connected than ever before and work-from-home becoming the norm, online harassment at the workplace is a menace that requires the immediate attention of employers, employees and regulators alike. This article aims to throw light on what constitutes online harassment at the workplace and the legal and other remedies that can be availed to tackle the same.

  1. Workplace harassment 
  2. Cyberbullying or online harassment
  3. Recent cases of online harassment by employees 
  4. Impact of harassment on the victim 
  5. Legal provisions 
  6. What can companies do? 
  7. Conclusion  
  8. References 

Workplace harassment 

The terms workplace harassment, workplace aggression, workplace bullying are often used interchangeably to mean the same thing. Workplace Harassment is a broad term, that includes any form of threatening, belittling, unwelcome behaviour against the employee by a colleague or supervisor. Research has shown that about 25% – 85% of women in the US and about 13% of women in the UK have experienced some form of sexual harassment at the workplace. And while it is more common for women to face harassment, men too have increasingly become victims of such abusive behaviour. In India, more than 55% of employees face some form of harassment at the workplace and the pandemic has only worsened the situation by enhancing the threat of harassment; as after covid, online harassment has increased by over 5 times! While harassment may be physical or online; and it can be further categorized into the following kinds:

1. Discriminatory harassment 

This includes discrimination of an employee on the basis of gender, race, caste, sexual orientation, disability, mother tongue, family background, citizenship etc. Some examples are male nurses being harassed because nursing is predominantly perceived as being a woman’s job, religious jokes, discrimination at the time of hiring or giving promotions based on any of the above criteria. 

2. Physical harassment

This could be termed workplace violence also and may lead to assaults in certain cases. It could also lead to strikes taking a violent turn in offices/ factories. 

3. Sexual harassment 

This is one of the most prevalent forms of workplace harassment and is generally aimed against women. Sexual harassment essentially stems from power hierarchies in the workplace between the victim and the perpetrator. This could take the form of quid pro quo (meaning this for that like offering promotion or perks in return for sexual favours) or creating a hostile environment for the victim; it could also be done to avenge a refusal from the woman employee. Some of the examples include making sexually coloured remarks, jokes which are sexual or obscene in nature, showing pornography, inappropriate touching or any other act which is unwelcome to the employee.

4. Psychological harassment

Anyone or more forms of abuse invariably has an impact on the psyche of a person and this constitutes psychological harassment. It could also be on account of continued personal attacks on the person, isolation at the workplace, spreading rumours, gossiping, verbal abuse etc. 

Cyberbullying or online harassment

Any or all of the above-mentioned abuses can be done either physically, in person or they could be perpetuated using electronic means. Thus, cyberbullying/cyberstalking is an intentional and repeated abuse, harassment or exploitation of another person using electronic devices or over the internet. Workplace online harassment or cyberbullying is an offshoot of the broader term and essentially revolves around three criteria – the intention of the perpetrator to harm the colleague/ employee, the action is repeated in nature and creates or takes advantage of an imbalance of power structures within an organisation. 

While online harassment could take place in any of the ways mentioned above, like discrimination, personal, verbal or sexual, there are certain unique and more precarious forms owing to the anonymity that comes online. Some of these are:

Recent cases of online harassment by employees

Cases of online harassment by employees or supervisors have been reported post the pandemic across the world, some such cases are: 

Impact of harassment on the victim

The impact of any form of abusive or abrasive behaviour invariably takes a toll on the physical as well as mental health of the victim. The employee initially gives in to pressures of loss of job or peer pressure or power structures, however, slowly, it creates an imaginary world that is often, far from ground realities. They face mental health problems like depression, low self-esteem and even suicidal behaviour. This in turn impacts their productivity at work. 

As for the company, it leads to attrition as employees eventually leave the job if the company does not take appropriate and timely measures against harassment. It even leads to loss of company reputation among customers and investors. There would, of course, be legal consequences as well.

Legal provisions

There is no specific law that deals with either online harassment or cyberstalking in India. However, the overarching framework of the Information Technology Act, 2000 as well as the Indian Penal Code does provide protection against online harassment. Moreover, the Sexual Harassment of women at the workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 (“POSH Act”) is special legislation that deals with sexual harassment of women at the workplace.

1. The Indian Penal Code (IPC) 

Some of the provisions that deal with harassment are given below:

2. The Information Technology Act, 2000 

Section 67 – This section prohibits the publishing or transmission of obscene material in electronic form; this offence is punishable with imprisonment for a term extendable upto 3 years and with a fine extendable upto 5 lakhs. In case of subsequent offences, the term of imprisonment may be extended upto 5 years and a fine upto Rs. 10 lakhs.

3. The POSH Act

What can companies do?

While the law does provide ample protection against various forms of online harassment, there is an increasing need for companies/employers to protect the interests of their employees from all forms of workplace harassment. Some action points for companies are given below: 

Conclusion

Technology, today has invaded our lives at various levels, on all interaction platforms such as the internet, social media platforms, cellphones, computers, text and messaging platforms etc. and the use of technology is only going to increase in the years to come. With the onset of the pandemic, our reliance on digital technology has dramatically increased and so has workplace online harassment. It is thus, not an issue limited only to offices and workplaces but has become a social issue. Hence, there is a need to weed out this problem at various levels. 

Until recently, organizations typically perceived online harassment as a lesser threat compared to physical abuse, especially in cases of sexual harassment. However, with various cases of harassment being reported from all quarters, it is the responsibility of employers to pitch in and make it safe for their employees to work, especially now since all of us are grappling with the pandemic and its after-effects! Implementing anti-harassment policies, training and timely intervention in case of an incident can go a long way in creating safe working conditions. 

References


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