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Case Analysis: Prey Or Produce?

During a crisis, it is important for the leaders to send clear messages to all, else the atmosphere will be vitiated

Photo Credit : Subhabrata Das

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A very well put together case, which  clearly brings out the diversity of views about an area that is of great concern in today’s world (see the blog post by Susan Fowler detailing her experiences at Uber where she too underwent sexual harassment at first at the hands of her manager. Fowler who joined as a site reliability engineer in 2015, was overtly propositioned by her manager over company chat. Fowler took screen shots of these messages and went to HR. But surprising her, HR and senior management told her; one, it was the manager’s first ‘mistake’; two, it was an innocent mistake; three, he was a high performer, with great appraisals; four, they would not be comfortable giving him more than a warning and talking-to. Adding insult to injury, they also told her she had a choice of changing her working teams and thus keep him away; or, she could stay in his team but know – and this really takes the cake – that he would give her a bad performance review!).

At Kayplas, where Ananya Rajan goes through a similar harassment at the hands of her boss who is twice her age, and towards the end of the third part of the case, the arguments of the senior teams at Kayplas are shocking. In this case of Kayplas and Ananya, there are multiple angles represented, that we could look at – from management of people, to changing with times, to regressive teams to the need for nurturing culture. But here are some:

First, there is the brave and reflective Ananya who is able to not only voice her feelings about the ‘lewdity’ and humiliation she was at the receiving end of, but look at the event in terms of the tacit support the rest of the leadership has for JD, by just the one act of not naming the issue. We could more deeply examine how she feels wronged not only by one person but also, indirectly, by the whole company (who unusually present at a meeting to hear Ananya’s story armed with a battery of lawyers!), thereby undermining her relationship with and trust of the very product/s the organisation survives on. Ananya even feels people with compromised values cannot nurture a brand with good values.

Second, there is the need voiced by the CEO to keep the story in check so it doesn’t spoil the upcoming share issue and result in the organisation getting ‘egg in the face’. What is more, he even doubts the authenticity of Ananya’s complaint. We could examine this from the perspective of a leader that is so focused on the business that the ambient culture seems to be an annoying secondary thing that just needs to be silenced. Or, that he is blind to people matters.

Third, we have Parthiv of HR, who just about manages to stop himself from becoming the henchman of the CEO, when he reflects about what happened and his role in it. We could focus on the importance of independent thinking and the role of HR in any organization (Uber for instance, seemed to conceive of HR as a hiring function mainly). Should HR just keep looking the other way or grapple with issues even if it means soliciting views and then making a clear recommendation.

Fourth, we could focus on the variety of leaders views as they ponder how to approach this whole mess in a just manner and consider the degree of punishment that should or should not be meted out to JD. Included here are old friends of JD at work who seem to want to favour saving his monies. We could be drawn in separate positions and yet appreciate the different views across the spectrum ranging from not naming the issue and asking JD to resign whilst protecting his dues, to his being asked to resign with a loss of up to 40 per cent of his dues to the most wanted, sacking of JD while calling out his misdemeanor.

There are a few things that need highlighting – one is the need to provide spaces that are fundamentally safe. This means that notwithstanding who is involved, which level of leadership or quality of performance, any compromising of a person’s basic psychological safety or dignity, needs to be called out.

However, and this is the second thing, we need to consider, as Palsetia says towards the end, that such cultures of understanding need to be nurtured. Palsetia notices the crime, names it, knows the rule for such a situation, agrees on punishment but the manner of administering it has to be, he feels, in line with an underlying Kayplas culture of dignity and elegance. It is not just that we have an order or law, but one which we need to keep revisiting about how we treat each other at the workplace. One is an espoused value and the other is the means to make it happen. Perhaps it would be in order to elaborate.

When there is a sense of psychological safety we can give our best to the organisation. There are many things that can prevent such safety from happening, including negative competition, backbiting and politicking, inability to accept differences, discrimination, and, of course, sexual advances/harassment, among others.

Do leaders even consider these aspects to be of importance? Any human endeavor will have a primary task of value creation (selling a product or providing a service), which is the very reason for the existence of the organisation. Inevitably, this is embedded in an ecosystem or culture. If the culture is ‘messed up’, the primary task or business will be impacted sooner or later. There may be attrition or absenteeism or other such reactions if the culture is not conducive. Or if the espoused culture is not reinforced, not felt at work. At Kayplas, if there is a feeling that people, like Ananya, do not matter then the organisation becomes a purely transactional one, that believes the person is only a means to produce something and of no real consequence. Like the issues plaguing the growing behemoth Uber, the price could be very high. Are companies willing to pay that price?

One other ‘vector’ that needs looking at is the secret- private-public one. While the public is about openness, transparency and communicating to all concerned, the private space is about communicating to a few in a specified group, usually by intent (for example, a management meeting to look at some sensitive issues), the secret space is about communication that cannot be open because it is antagonistic to what is considered publicly acceptable. It is about the hush-hush, the furtive, the surreptitious. Leaders need to be able to have the insight and courage to both become aware of this and call it out. To turn a blind eye is to sweep such issues under the carpet. Damage can be done at the cost of engaged productivity.

Ananya bravely brought up this surreptitious act of a senior executive. When the secret comes out into the open, it can be potentially very explosive and hence people go to great lengths to cover up. One can also see how the impact went on to create a deep distrust on the part of Ananya towards the company as a whole, including the people and the products. This is explosive stuff and one that can undermine the company equity, which may have been built up painstakingly.

What sort of leader does one need to preside over a culture that can combine ‘engaged’ productivity with an overall sense of safety for all concerned? If a leader leans towards ignoring safety and the ambient cultural atmosphere or ecosystem, the consequences will show up soon enough. Word gets around. Employees have choices or at least they can create them (the new buzz word is ‘portfolio careers’).

The ability to look some of the hush-hush stuff in the eye is not an easy one. This requires a type of person who is not governed by seeking popularity or the approval of a few senior people, but one who has the good of the whole company in mind, both for today and an emerging future. Managerial or leadership courage is at the heart of this. Firm action, without humiliation, is necessary if the organisation wishes to be experienced as a fair and psychologically secure space. Clear messages need to be sent, else the atmosphere is vitiated.

Equally importantly, we need to pay attention to the underlying cultural ecosystem, which is crucial if this kind of experience has to be minimised. To what extent do our organisations create spaces to learn about these leadership qualities and through that gradually build spaces or ecosystems that are fair, inclusive, respectful and so on? Left unattended, anything happens, and we may end up with realities that have already created a lot of damage. It becomes important to be intentional and continually refresh our understanding of what is appropriate in taking a more holistic view of the business environment.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.


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Kaushik Gopal

The writer is a psychoanalyst and coach by training and has recently taken on the role of managing consultant in YSC India

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