Written by: Ankit Kumar Padhy
It has been over a year since people in the formal workforce switched to working from home because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Full-time employees weren’t the only ones who made this switch – internships also became work-from-home.
Lots of young people interact and coordinate with their supervisors online as part of their internships. It was only last week when women began taking to social media, especially LinkedIn to share their experiences of sexual harassment at the hand of their seniors.
From receiving the kiss emoji over WhatsApp to inappropriate comments on Instagram, women have documented and spoken up about their experiences. News reports also suggest that there’s been a rise in sexual harassment at work during the pandemic.
This article is for women who are interning in India today to understand that not only are they not supposed to bear with such behaviour, they can report these incidents to the Internal Complaints Committee of their respective organisations.
Read to understand the PoSH Act, 2013, and its provisions better, to be equipped with legal, if and when, you need it.
Consider the following scenario:
Ms. X is a virtual intern at a company Y. Recently, the company’s senior manager ‘Z’ sent a Facebook friend request to Ms. X. Though they are not friends, the request was accepted by Ms. X as she did not want to be rude. Thereafter, Z has been liking and commenting on her Facebook pictures. He has also been sending her personal Whatsapp messages like “Good morning, dear with a ‘face blowing a kiss’ emoji”, “you look really beautiful”, “double meaning jokes” and video calls her on Whatsapp after office hours. Ms. X has not been responding to such messages and video calls. May the aforesaid actions of ‘Z’ be regarded as sexual harassment of Ms. X in the virtual workplace? The answer is, yes.
The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 (PoSH Act) protects women employees from sexual harassment in the workplace. The definition of an ‘employee’ under the PoSH Act is wide enough, and includes interns, whether paid or unpaid, within the scope of the Act.
The Act also says that the ‘workplace’ includes any “place visited by the employee arising out of or during the course of employment, including a dwelling house or a house.” Thus, PoSH Act would apply to any place from where work or official business gets conducted, including virtual workplaces, and definitely, online internships.
It’s important for employers to inform their interns that their workplace is POSH compliant and also explain to them the provisions of the law. As for interns, it’s essential that they understand what constitutes sexual harassment in the virtual workplace. Employers complying with the PoSH Act and interns knowing their rights is essential for the prevention of sexual harassment in the given times.
What does sexual harassment really mean in the virtual workplace? According to PoSH Act, ‘sexual harassment’ in online workplace may include, sexually coloured remarks, offensive comments or jokes, unwelcome online advances/flirting, indecent behaviour during video calls, showing pornography, online stalking, creating offensive or hostile work environment, etc. 
The definition is inclusive and non-exhaustive in nature. Sexual harassment has a detrimental impact on the working environment of the organization as well as the emotional, physical, and psychological wellbeing of the aggrieved. Incidents of sexual harassment also negatively affect the organization in the form of high legal costs and loss of market reputation.
Considering the exorbitant time it takes for the judiciary to process cases, the legislature has provided an innovative grievance redressal mechanism to victims of sexual harassment at the workplace in the form of Internal Complaints Committee.
It is mandatory for any organization with ten or more employees to constitute an independent Internal Complaints Committee at the workplace. Any aggrieved intern may submit a written complaint to the said committee within three months of the last incident of sexual harassment. In the case of interns in the unorganized sector or small enterprises, the complaint may be lodged with the Local Complaints Committee at the district level.
An intern would be required to submit a written complaint detailing her ordeal to the Internal Complaints Committee. On receipt of the complaint, the Committee would conduct an impartial inquiry into the matter. The organization cannot fire the intern during the course of inquiry or merely on the grounds of filing the complaint. The employer should take all precautionary steps to ensure a healthy work environment for the aggrieved intern. The intern may also request to be shifted to another department or under a different supervisor to prevent any hostile confrontation between the accused and the aggrieved intern.
On completion of the inquiry, the Committee will submit a report to the employer. Thereafter, the employer must act in accordance with the findings of the report. In case, the accused senior official is found guilty by the Committee, he may be punished as per the service rules and monetary compensation for the aggrieved intern may also be ordered. Additionally, a criminal complaint may also be filed with the police under relevant provisions of the Indian Penal Code.
Simply put, nobody can use their senior positions in the place where you’re interning to sexually harass you. They just can’t. It’s a crime and is recognised by the PoSH Act, 2013.
You do not/should not have to put up with any behaviour that makes you uncomfortable. You cannot be called ‘Dear’, ‘Sweety’, and the like, or receive any inappropriate emoticons from your fellow colleagues and seniors at work – not on WhatsApp, not on Slack, not in your Instagram DMs or Facebook/LinkedIn messages.
Double meaning WhatsApp forwards are also not okay. You shouldn’t be receiving them in the first place, and if you do, you are not obligated to acknowledge or respond. If you’re comfortable enough, ask them to back off. Any and all requests for communication about work in odd, non-working hours are not okay. Yes, you may just be starting out in your careers and you fear reporting sexual harassment may have repercussions – know this: it’s not on you.
The onus to provide you with a safe workplace is on the company that’s hired you. It’s on the company to ensure their employees mind their language and their behaviour.
The best solution available to companies employing women right now would be to comply with the PoSH Act, in letter and in spirit. Additionally, employers must communicate effectively with their workforce, especially the interns, and inform them of how sexual harassment will not be tolerated at the workplace and the mechanisms that exist to address the problem. Finally, creating an atmosphere of psychological safety will not only encourage more women to report incidents but also boost productivity. It’s a no-brainer, really.
About the author: Ankit is a legal consultant at Padhy and Co. Advocates. He’s also an Assistant Professor at Vellore Institute of Technology and is a PhD scholar at the Gujarat National Law University.
 Section 2(o), POSH Act, 2013.
 Section 2 and 3, POSH Act, 2013.