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Workplace Harassment and the Domino Effect – A Socio-Legal Analysis

Workplace Harassment

The #MeToo movement that gave voice to the sufferings of many women who in any phase of their lives have been victims of harassment. But why was a movement needed for these ladies to openly talk about the wrong that has happened to them? Many reasons abstain people from sharing any experience of harassment that has happened to them. But when one person comes forward a plethora of people follow.

In France, it was reported that a year after the #MeToo movement, there was a 35% rise in reported cases of sexual harassment. This could be the power of a movement. Well, this movement was only about sexual harassment, but we will discuss other types of harassment also.

Introduction

We really wanted to create a beautiful environment that we’d be proud to work in, but more importantly, one that people would also feel comfortable coming in to.

Amanda D’ Alfonso 

The reason for starting with this quote was to emphasize the point that a work environment that looks beautiful is not always a comfortable one. The experiences of employees that make an environment uncomfortable are generally kept secret either out of the fear of losing their job or because of the harasser’s threats. Workplace Harassment is a common thing that happens with a plethora of people, but the number of people who come forward to take any action against it is very less. The reasons are many, perhaps nobody listens to their complaints or else if somebody does then they tell the victim to keep it to themselves and ignore any such behavior in the future so that their job is saved.

HRAcuity, a software company, situated in New Jersey, conducted a survey of more than 1,300 workers employed in different companies and belonging to different age groups to know how employees handle any inappropriate or abusive behaviors of their seniors, juniors, co-workers, or for that matter any person in the organization. The survey showed that 85% of employees are aware of where and how to report any harassment issues. But despite that many employees do not report such issues because they think that either the decision will be unfair or they will have to face retaliation from the harasser. Another observation of this survey worth discussing is that any issues reported by men are 26% more likely to be addressed. This indicates a rather ironic situation where women face gender bias or perhaps harassment at the stage of reporting harassment.  

Having discussed that, an imperative point to be stressed upon and made clear here is that, “workplace harassment” does not imply only “sexual harassment”. It indeed is a major contributor to workplace harassment but not the only one. Many other types go unnoticed just because no one is aware of the existence of such a type of harassment. We will be discussing in detail these types as we proceed further. First things first, let us look into the meaning of “workplace harassment” and what are the actions which constitute it. 

What is Harassment?

According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Harassment is unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including sexual orientation, gender identity, or pregnancy), national origin, older age (beginning at age 40), disability, or genetic information (including family medical history).

According to IndiaLegal, the term ‘Harassment’ is a form of discrimination. It includes any unwanted physical or verbal behavior that offends or humiliates you. It covers a wide range of behaviors of an offensive nature.

Various Facets of Workplace Harassment

Sex Offender

Now as stated earlier workplace harassment is commonly associated with sexual harassment however it is a wrong perception. This common misconception has to be done away with so that no type of harassment goes unnoticed and unreported. Learning about these types is not only important for the employees but also for the employers since the most valuable and dear asset of an organization are its goodwill, image and its human resources. If any case of harassment with an organization’s employee comes out in public, its assets are at stake which no company can afford. So, it is integral for all organizations to ensure that their workplace is safe for the employees, and even if then any employee experiences harassment they can take legal action too. So let’s discuss the types of workplace harassment. 

Sexual Harassment

It is the most common type of harassment that happens in the workplace. But despite it being so common there are still cases that go unrecognized because people are unaware of what constitutes sexual harassment as a result of which they did not consider what has happened to them as harassment. To have a better idea of what is sexual harassment and what constitutes it, the definition provided in guidelines of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, can be referred to, which is as stated – Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature when

  • Submission to such conduct is made either explicitly or implicitly a term or condition of an individual’s employment, or
  • Submission to or rejection of such conduct by an individual is used as a basis for employment decisions affecting such individual, or
  • Such conduct has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual’s work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment.

It is imperative to address the issues of harassment at a workplace since the effects it could have on the victim might be deep-rooted and it creates a hostile environment in furtherance of which the performance and career aspiration of employees and primarily the victim will be compromised because an intimidating and hostile environment makes it difficult for them to achieve their goals. These effects do not solely disturb the victim but the organization in which it has happened also. There are certain legal and financial costs of sexual harassment which harm the organization and affect its reputation in the industry. 

Legal Aspect

  • Indian Penal Code, 1860 – Sections 294 dealing with obscene acts and songs, 354 dealing with assault or criminal force to woman with intent to outrage her modesty, 354(A) deals with sexual harassment and its punishment, and 509 deals with any word, gesture or act that is intended to insult the modesty of a woman. The prescribed punishments are of 3 months imprisonment, fine or both in section 294, of 1 to 5 years and fine in section 354, of 3 years imprisonment in section 354(A), and 3 years imprisonment and fine or both in section 509. 
    In the landmark case of Vishakha V. State of Rajasthan, it was held that sexual harassment violates the ‘Right to Equality’ guaranteed to Indian citizens under Article 14 and 15, ‘Right to Freedom’ under Article 19, and of ‘Right to Life’ under Article 21 of the Constitution. After this case, the Vishakha Guidelines were laid down to prevent sexual harassment of women at the workplace. 
    Sexual Harassment of the Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, this act was enacted many years after the Vishakha judgment and its aim is the elimination of harassment against women at the workplace and protects them and their fundamental rights. 

Having seen the provisions of some countries for preventing sexual harassment a common drawback that could be figured out clearly is these laws are not gender-neutral. All laws talk about sexual harassment of women at the workplace but no provision is made for men. Where will a man go if he is sexually harassed? His fundamental rights are also being infringed but which course to take when none is available. So, the need of the hour is to either amend these laws or to make some new legislation that is gender-neutral. 

Psychological Harassment

It is also known as bullying, psychological terror, workplace harassment and scapegoating, etc. There is no standard definition of this concept, but there are some points extracted from random definitions of psychological harassment and by putting them together we can know what constitutes psychological harassment. So, psychological harassment is experienced when the victim is targeted by a person/group of persons, negatively, such behavior is repetitive and does not stop after happening once meaning the victim is consistently nagged and the intention of the perpetrator is on the face of it to attack the victim, make him feel bad, excluded, intimidated all the time and sometimes the worst, forcing the victim out of work.

This type of harassment is likely to happen with differently-able people. Some instances to know if someone is being psychologically harassed can be the assignment of meaningless task by the perpetrator, gossiping, intrusion into private life, provocation, verbal abuse, humiliating the victim in presence of his coworkers, exclusion, setting hard to meet deadlines, threatening and sexual harassment, etc. Such behaviors if not nipped in the bud can prove to be detrimental to the victim because they may result in the victim developing psychological and mental disorders like depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Legal Aspect

The above-mentioned countries like Sweden and Canada do have guidelines prohibiting any type of psychological harassment, but there are still many countries that have no legislation or guidelines regarding it which is a motivating factor for perpetrators to continue inflicting harm on the victim. Psychological Harassment goes hand in hand with other types of harassment since a person who has been sexually harassed or verbally abused etc. will be hit psychologically also. So, governments need to wake up and address the issues of harassment through some strong legislation having provisions pertinent to what employees can do if harassed and listing repercussions for perpetrators and employers failing to attend to the complaint of the victim. 

Verbal Harassment

It is a non-physical type of harassment, where no physical harm like hitting or touching is inflicted but the harm is inflicted through words. It is called verbal abuse. It includes hurtful comments, mocking, joking, body shaming, and innuendos, etc. According to the 2021 WB U.S. Workplace Bullying Survey, 30% of adult Americans were bullied at work and 61.3% of bullying was same-gender bullying. According to Bill Sutton of Stanford University, bullying can lead to a 40% decline in productivity at the workplace. The effects of abuse and bullying are directed negatively towards the employer also as the effectiveness of work would be low, absenteeism will increase and there are fair chances that the employee will resign from the job because the environment will become hostile and negative when there will be constant abuse.

Legal Aspect

There is no specific legislation to govern the issues of verbal harassment. But in the case of L. Nagaraju V. Syndicate Bank, the Supreme Court of India said that to prove verbal harassment, the victim should obtain the testimony of a third party, keep a diary to record the date, time, and circumstances of abuse, and record the event if possible. In other countries also no specific legislation relating to verbal harassment is present. 

Physical Harassment

When the perpetrator harms the victim physically like touching the victim or maybe inflicting some physical injury on the victim, it is called physical harassment. Such behavior is intimidating and embarrassing for the victim creating a hostile environment. Physical harassment is generally sexual abuse similar to sexual harassment but it could also be in the form of violence like involving in physical fights, kicking or hitting the victim, etc. People belonging to the gender minorities or the LGBTQIA+ are more at risk of having victimization to physical abuse.

Recent Instance – In the new normal due to Covid-19, people have been facing problems of all kinds. But what the nurses in hospitals were going through is nerve-wracking. In Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital, Georgia, the USA the director of patient care Kelsey Reed said that she and other nurses were being verbally as well physically abused by the patients and their families since the pandemic has started and reported an increase in verbal and physical abuse cases among workers in past 18 months. 

According to Northeast Georgia Hospital System Security Report, from a hospital room a scream was heard and it a nurse was found pinned against the door with her head pressed into it by a patient. In another incident, a patient grabbed the wrist of a nurse and she was kicked in her ribs by him. These are two disturbing incidents, the frontline workers in times of COVID-19 have been working day and night for the safety of patients, and getting so badly abused in return is completely unacceptable. In a report of the American Nurse Association, in 2019, every 1 out of 4 nurses was assaulted in the workplace. This is not only the plight of nurses but of many other people working in different sectors on different jobs.

Legal Aspect

There is no specific law prohibiting physical harassment but because it generally pertains to sexual harassment, so here sexual harassment laws could be applied.  

Cyber Bullying & Cyber Harassment

Cyberbullying

With the invention of cyberspace and social media platforms, they have both advantages and disadvantages. A disadvantage of it is cyberbullying. According to National Crime Prevention Council, it is “the process of using the Internet, cell phones or other devices to send or post text or images intended to hurt or embarrass another person.”  For example: – spreading lies, posting images of someone, sending hurtful messages, impersonating someone, threatening or intimidating. 

Recent Instance – With the onset of the Coronavirus pandemic work has shifted online due to which many companies have reported a lower number of sexual and physical harassment cases but the alarming fact is that the number of cyberbullying cases has shot up. Suzanne McKie, an employment lawyer based in London, says that the occurrence of online harassment has proliferated after the imposition of the lockdown in the country. The employees are being abused through social media like WhatsApp messages or text messages etc. Similar is the case with other organizations which points to the dire need of adopting measures to stop the increasing cases of cyberbullying.  

Legal Aspect

  1. Australia- The Family Law Act, 1975 protects people from harassment occurring on electronic devices. But no specific legislation is there yet.
  2. Singapore- In Singapore Protection from Harassment Act (POHA), 2014 is there which makes cyberbullying and any other type of online harassment an offense. 
  3. India- Cyberbullying is punishable in India under the Information Technology (IT) Act, 2000 and Indian Penal Code (IPC), 1860  The helpline number to report any cyberbullying or online harassment is 112. 

This was all about the type of workplace harassment and what legal recourse is available to the victims. However, the laws are not gender-neutral and for some types of harassment there is no specific legislation this is a loophole because it is a motivation for the perpetrators to keep harassing the victims because no legal recourse is available. 

The Domino Effect

What is a domino effect? Surely this is the question that had popped up in the maximum number of people’s minds after reading the heading. Let me give a common example, Suppose you had a fight with your friend (event1), after which your mood was very low (event2) and you felt like staying alone the whole day (event3) so you don’t talk to your family or friends (event4), due to such an uncommon behavior of yours, your family gets tensed (event5). Due to one event, a chain of events has happened in the above case. This is called the ‘Domino Effect’.  

Negative Domino Effect of Workplace Harassment

#MeToo

There has been a lot of research on what could be the ramifications of getting ill-treated or harassed at work. Their results have shown that any person who is exposed to continuous harassment and a hostile environment has a risk of developing depression and other psychological disorders. When the mental health of one employee deteriorates it affects the family and colleagues of that employee also. At times, it might also happen that the perpetrator abuses or harasses the victim in presence of other employees; there is a strong chance that it creates a fear in the mind of other employees also and will definitely create an intimidating and hostile work environment. What the repercussions of working in such an environment will be, have already been discussed.

When such a situation arises there will be a lack of productivity in the organization because fearful minds will hesitate to come up with new ideas. It might also lead to absenteeism on the part of the victim to stay away from the perpetrator and in the worst of cases, the victim might resign which will affect his/her job prospects, and zeal of working effectively will reduce. The story does not end here or rather domino effect does not end here, not every employee will leave without taking any action. If an employee brings a complaint against the organization in whatever jurisdiction it falls, the company might have to face tremendous fine imposition, which means the domino effects now will show up on the employer also. If the workforce is not productive and enthusiastic and the employee turnover increases, the organization will be in great crisis. Let me introduce a real case here.

In 2019, a French telecom company, ‘Orange’ was found guilty of “moral harassment”. The domino effect was such, the employees were getting morally harassed in the company, resulting which as stated by the prosecutor in the case, 18 employees committed and 13 have attempted to commit suicide between 2008 and 2010. An employee in the suicide note wrote that the CEO Didier Lombard and his executives followed a phenomenon of “management by terror”. A fine of 75,000 euros was imposed on the company and the CEO was punished with a jail term of a year. There are many similar cases in which companies due to the non-presence of a redressal cell for harassment complaints, or for not acting on these complaints have to face legal action and pay tremendous amounts of fines as a punishment. 

Positive Domino Effect of Workplace Harassment

A positive domino effect does not follow a positive event; the event from which the effect starts is negative because harassment in no way can be positive. So say if a woman is sexually harassed at work. She does not hold back and raises a voice against the perpetrator and due action is also taken. This motivates other women to open up about their experiences and expose the perpetrators. This is a positive domino effect. Because a woman decided to raise her voice against the wrong event that has happened to her protecting her rights, it had a further positive effect on women who have been victims of harassment themselves and perhaps been going through the trauma every day.

A real example to corroborate this point is the #MeToo movement, the name itself suggests that when one woman opened up about her experience, other women came forward saying ‘Me Too’. A lot of women after the inception of this movement started sharing their stories and the movement continues to date. Studies show that after the launch of the #MeToo Movement, an increase of 7% was seen in cases of sexual harassment reported in the US between October and December 2017. Another case was of Harvey Weinstein, a Hollywood producer on whom actresses Rose McGowan and Ashley Judd put allegations of sexual harassment. After this, a lot of other actresses came forward with the same allegation on the producer. In India, how has the Prevention of Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act has come into being? As an effect of the Vishakha Judgment, it was in this case that the SC recommended the introduction of such an act to protect women. 

Conclusion

In a nutshell, we can say that workplace is a place where a person spends half of his full day’s time. So it needs to be safe. Also, a safe working environment is the right of every human being. But if this environment turns hostile and perpetrators creep in, it becomes pivotal to report their behaviors at the earliest so that their harassing conduct stops and no further harm has to be faced by the victim. Any type of harassment could occur at the workplace and legal recourse is available but it is very sad that these legislation’s are not gender-neutral and this loophole is very important to be filled. In a workplace where men and women work equally or at equal status, the laws governing any harassment taking place there too have to be equal.

Workplace harassment is a social evil and it could be prevented with legal action. People of a country have faith in its judiciary and law for they think that law will protect them from any harm and if any harm does happen then will punish the perpetrator but if the law fails to protect the people bereft gender bias then the faith of people in its law will shake and the perpetrator will move free. The need is for stringent laws and precedents which could be of aid to people in any harassing circumstances.

Also, some guidelines or rules have to be fixed as there are already in many countries, on the steps employers have to follow to maintain a safe environment. The seminars and events could also be conducted to inculcate the skills of professionalism and empathy in the employees. All the countries should focus on this area. Further, the domino effect is a very interesting concept that shows the chain of events influenced by one single event of harassment. By understanding the domino effect organizations could know how important it is to maintain a safe workplace and healthy environment which will lead to the development and betterment of the company, employees, and the world in times to come.

One Comment

  • POSH Law

    This article is very informative to guidance about the safe working environment is the right of every human being. Do check POSh Law to build a safer workplace enviroment.

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