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Case Study: A Culture Of Punishment

“Crime? What crime? ...My killing a loathsome, harmful louse, a filthy old moneylender woman ... and you call that a crime?” — Fyodor Dostoyevsky in Crime & Punishment

Photo Credit : Shutterstock

Parthiv Vaidya groaned into his hands as he bent over on his desk, swearing under his breath. He rued the day he gave a kind hearing to CEO Anil Desai’s narrative of the JD-Ananya case.

Had I been dispassionate, I would have known exactly what I should have said then! One moment of softening and offering to help JD.... Heck! See, where I have landed! The beast misled me. I should have probed… JD said he was solving a word game and needed to know if that word he had created out of a jumble of alphabets was a valid word (alluding to the pornographic word that JD had asked Ananya to find the meaning of). That it was a one-off and he was not making overtures!
But Parthiv was to learn from Ananya Rajan and Freida Mistry that JD had ‘played’ the same game three days in a row till an alarmed Ananya had reported.

Parthiv was the head of HR at Kayplas. Four months ago, when Freida had mentioned the matter to Desai, he had called in Parthiv and said, “We are poised for a share issue and the last thing I want is this sort of thing. Truth is, we don’t know if this really happened or the girl is deluded. Do all you can to prevent egg on our face.”

Parthiv had experienced a false sense of importance, he now recalled honestly. And like Batman, had sailed into rescue mission. But it was at the meeting, which Ananya had called, that he realised that the matter was more serious than he had thought.

As things led from one to the other, Desai had come to the meeting with Mantoo Shroff, Head of Legal, (very unnecessary), and Ketan Shah, legal partner, Bright & Thakur, (even more unnecessary). Parthiv had lost confidence and his words did not come out too well. Desai had no business to call the legal fellows without telling him. Parthiv was caught unprepared. Soon, he was to find that the truth was bigger and lay elsewhere.

Exasperated, Parthiv had wanted to focus his energies on the four men in the room and their diverse views on JD and he had told Ananya to leave rather brusquely. Once she left, the four got into an argument. Parthiv’s anger had been singularly with Shroff, the head of legal, not so much Desai. He knew that without the heads of HR and Legal, Desai was rather incapable of acting. But Shroff who had been advising the company on so many issues had infected the talks with a view that ‘sitting there, Ananya was a ticking bomb and her resentment would result in a mindless blog one day.’ And thus, he had made her the one to be distrusted.

Yes, they all wanted Ananya to leave. She was a difficult potato and she was not giving any of them a handle on her. She fought them all bravely, even if foolishly, thought Parthiv. Then seeing that JD should be the one to go, he had suggested that to Desai.

But Desai said that would be unfair as then JD would lose parts of his gratuities, etc., if he were to leave ahead of his formal retirement day.

Parthiv thought about the stiff attack that Ketan Shah had presented with his theory of  ‘every right has to be earned’ – that even a seemingly natural right to post-retirement monies had to be ‘earned’ by good conduct. “Which also means, any act that questions JD’s absolute devotion to the organisation goals, or which prevents another from performing his duties to the best of his or her abilities, was to be deemed ‘absence of absolute devotion’,”  thought Parthiv.

Meanwhile, Shroff had gone off to confer with corporate communications head, Sheila Sharma. Her verdict: “If you cannot put proof on the table, then I would lean towards the older, longer standing employee. But whatever you decide, that gal needs to go, if not, she is going to sully our image with her talk; and she will...

Women cannot keep quiet about things like that; they must talk; it brings them peace and self-vindication.”

Shroff: That can happen even if she quits, so maybe there is merit in easing out JD. It will buy peace.

Sheila: What?! Have you lost it? He is our own! You trust the girl and not him? Tomorrow she will come up with some new story. Are you going to listen? Ask her to table proof. There is no other way.

Shroff was not ready for this line of argument. He told her to manage the image front gently and messaged Parthiv: So, let us look at what all an employee can lose if service is terminated or he resigns.

Parthiv replied: The statutory stuff he will not lose. But his little rewards from the company such as long term service award of Rs 10 lakhs for 30 years’ service can go, and similar 3-4 other cash rewards can be cut. Post-retirement medical gets halved. This is very broad, I have not put pen to paper.

Shroff took a handful of very senior managers of Kayplas into confidence. They had already gleaned that there was a crisis brewing, and promised utmost confidentiality.

Shroff: The reward we give is for the 36 years he has given us. Will it be fair to penalise him for one moment of indiscretion?

Sukhbir Soham (Ops): I am not sure that is called indiscretion, Mantoo. At his age, discretion should be the way of living. You can say ‘indiscretion’ for someone in his 20s, where he has not perfected the difference between right and wrong. But even then, you reserve the right to thrash the daylights out of such a youngster!

Bani Gupta (Planning): Exactly! Are you not trivialising what happened? How can we be both generous and punish him, for what is blatant sexual harassment? What is the message you will be sending out to women? That it is unimportant to Kayplas how you get treated in the workplace?

Shroff: The ‘generosity’ is merely what is owed to him at retirement. Understand, each of you are also accumulating such earnings. So has JD. For 34 years now.

Truncating his service by two years is the punishment. Is the act he has done, so grave that he must lose a lifetime’s savings in post-retirement benefits? Do think objectively. Desai thinks, if we instead asked him to resign, it will not count as termination. The reason being that those monies are for the years of service given and those rewards must not be confused with the present aberration. We must balance punishment and reward.

Sheila: And mind you, these things will happen. Should we lean to one side and not recognise the good in that man?

Nandeep Kundu (Director, Safety): We have a right to punish him but not a right to take away what he has already earned. I also believe punishment should result in proportionate regret in man, not humiliation. Humiliation does not aid reformation. JD has worked with us 34 years and still has two to go. He was foolish, no doubt, but not criminal. Our reactions are extremely sharp now given the youth of the lady in question and our own sense of shock. And rightly so. But we must wait for the shock to calm down and reason to return.

Dilnaz Pandya (R&D): I fear we are already suffering from denial. JD is a good friend. I have known him so many years. But his behaviour is wrong, nevertheless.

Nandeep, it is difficult to be objective when the crime is what it is. And be objective, how? Condone it? What about Ananya? Is she safe?

Nandeep: My God, Dilnaz, JD is not a sex maniac! He just made one mistake!

A chorus of protest went around the table, drowning Nandeep’s words.

Sukhbir: What he has done is sexual harassment and that is a felony!

Shroff: Nope. It is not felony, it is not crime, it is not misdemeanour. It is uncivil behaviour, that is what it is. It is a matter between two parties. I have already had this clarified with my legal friends.

Shroff read out a message from his lawyer colleague from his WhatsApp: Did he harass her or she felt harassed? There is a difference. It is harassment if it amounts to harassment. Did he want favours? Did he threaten her? I don’t think you have a case!

The people around the table were very distressed at where the discussion was going.

Parthiv: Frankly Shroff, I give a damn what your colleagues think is harassment. We have a moral code to follow and I, as head of HR, will follow that code. JD’s action tantamount to inappropriate behaviour and such a person has no place at Kayplas. Since you are anxious about him losing sizeable monetary earnings if  ‘asked to leave’ before retirement, there is a suggestion from Desai he could resign, and thus, not really ‘lose’. Other than that, I am not entertaining any nonsense about the definition of this crime. Until yesterday it was in the ambit of legal. Now, it is an HR matter!

Dilnaz: The thing is not if it is legal, illegal, crime, felony or misdemeanour. The thing is, how the organisation views all this. Do you think this is an accepted behaviour? Is this the kind of behaviour we want seen in society? His action is contrary to the environment conducive for a gender diverse organisation, fairness and a respectful workplace. Does not an organisation have the role or responsibility to protect what we stand for?

Sukhbir: How can you sit here and tell us that you want to protect his pension or whatever monies? How is that important for greater good? How does that help Ananya? What are you protecting JD from? A legal response from the lady?

What is the limit of this behaviour? From verbal to physical is a thin line. The focus would be on the incident now, and not what good the man has done in the past.

This is eve teasing in the office. If this happened outside and the woman called the police, would law decide its course on the man’s pension-predicament or the misdemeanour? The past records and the man’s loss of benefits cannot be weighed against the punishment he deserves.

Nandeep: There is a difference between a cop and an organisation. Although both of them intervene when there is breach of respect, the response of the law is, for most part, necessarily transactional. But an organisation and its employees, are an intertwined whole with a long relationship (in this case, over decades). So, look at relationships and not just the ‘crime’.

The organisation, in a sense, has no existence without employees. Equally for employees, who typically spend 50 per cent of the waking hours in an organisation. Do we not consider our relationship with our child when he or she breaches norms? Therefore, dealing with a long-term employee has to necessarily take account of the relationship and be more forgiving and balanced than a single transaction like a police complaint resulting in legal action.

Ram Athreya (corporate advisor): There are some mistakes that can be rectified with reprimands and other punitive actions. But not this one.

Let us be truthful. As an organisation and social citizen, we are seeking to make Kayplas a gender aware workplace. By letting JD off the hook through allowing him to resign on health grounds, then making his retirement monies available… who are we kidding? And do you think I will stay on in such an organisation after all this? Mantoo, you shock me.

Shroff: Ram, I am only entreating that we separate the issues. Yes, we will punish him for this civil breach. But that should not translate to taking away from him what is his! Should we then overnight throw him out of his company accommodation too? Is that punishment or harassment?

Sukhbir: The right way to me seems to be that he should be asked to go and whatever the HR rules say for this form of termination, that much alone should be paid to him. That means, his dues come down to 60 per cent.

Shroff: That is what I mean by ‘unfair’.

Ram: The problem with you legal chaps is, you are blinkered. Can you see what this has done to the organisational atmosphere? It has been poisoned. You have even now created an air of doubt. This is what we do not want to be seen as encouraging. I am even amazed that I am sitting here discussing all this!

Nandeep: I request you all to think dispassionately, as if this were not about Kayplas. Does punishment have to be harsh and painful or reforming? Let us address that.

Dilnaz: I am beginning to agree. We are all overwhelmed and justifiably angry. But anger needs to be reined in. I can actually see how much time it is going to take to understand why we need to step back and think. We are all caught up in the awfulness of the incident, and think that we must all participate in punishing the man. So, with our words and attitude, we are all making him run the gauntlet as it were. Also, when we get to punish someone with our words, it gives us a sense of release and relief from angers we feel with the world. It’s tough, but we must have balanced (and not skewed) ways to respond to crisis.

Sukhbir: This issue afflicts society as a whole. Men have to stop looking at women as sex objects. This response is reptilian and cognitive behaviour has zero control over reptilian behaviour. The only thing that works against the reptilian brain is the fear of survival. Men should fear their survival in such situations. So, these must have the harshest punishment. Otherwise it is an invitation to repetition.

Parthiv was exhausted. The floor was clearly divided between severe punishment and punishment balanced with recognition of past. Somewhere in the distant parts of his mind, he agreed there should be balance of purposes. But all that he had been hearing and understanding was overwhelming and confounding too. Away from the workplace, he believed there was an essential Kayplas to be nurtured, protected. That essence was without turbulence or feeling. It simply was.

Back in his room, Parthiv felt great responsibility to obtain dispassionate counsel. What struck him as a good idea would require him to share this with a trustworthy outsider. And his own intention was pure, not intended to malign Kayplas.

Parthiv drove to Hamilton Hills after making some cursory phone calls. He was going to visit the grand old man who had, many years ago, sold Kayplas Oils to what once was India Lubricants and Machine Oils, which today was Kayplas India – Kayzad Palsetia, the then chairman of the merged company.

In his late 90s, Palsetia sat ready to receive Parthiv, looking dapper in an orange evening shirt. “I have dinner to attend with my great grandchildren; they selected my shirt!” he said unassumingly. Parthiv looked at him and wondered what went into building organisations and what this gent held within his heart.

Choosing his words carefully, Parthiv told Palsetia the situation at Kayplas, “I feel I am too young to take the right decisions, Sir, especially in situations like these. The few seniors I discussed this with seem divided over whether JD must be allowed his retirement rewards.”

Palsetia heard him and hung his head down into his chest as he thought. Then, he said, “I don’t think this is about rewards. This is more about punishment. People are keen to see punishment meted out. It is the nature of man. And people also want the punishment to be most severe. I once read in a paper on criminology that the people asking for severe punishment are usually not the victim and usually not in danger of falling victim to such offence. But they will want the punishment to be painful.

But organisations are homes. Normally when a senior person is asked to leave, the employees only know that much; not whether he was sacked or he resigned. I have lived through a few cases during my time and the message the organisation took was that A or B was asked to go; they did not get into the details of whether he resigned or was terminated. Memory and interest is usually short. In this case, Desai is going to speak to all employees in town hall meetings and make the message clear so JD resigning (instead of being sacked) will not dilute any message.

Many years ago, I had a senior person who was universally disliked and there was a strong grassroots movement to get rid of him. He was acutely alcoholic – a huge crime for those days, let me tell you. He was removed. At the town hall meetings to explain his departure, many employees asked whether the organisation had been fair to the person; whether he was decently treated and whether the whole episode spoke well of our culture.

It is finally about culture, my dear man. Anger has its place. Verdict its own. All these bodies in between, flapping arms and legs, raising dust, is anger. Demanding punishment. Wait for the passion to die down and then look at the organisation underneath. Right now, through the curtain of dust, you will misread. Your own mind is clouded now by a sense of wrong. It hides what is fair, right, correct. What you do should build that organisation, nurture its culture, speak for its culture. Am I making sense?

Parthiv: Yes, Sir. Yes.

Palsetia: I believe employees are far more balanced in their understanding of situations than often assumed, and situations should not be looked at in black and white. JD has to go for misdemeanour. No doubt there. Equally, beneath the dirt he has thrown up, he has been a loyal and performing employee for decades and should be treated decently during the departure. It is the right thing to do.

Culture is not merely punishing wrong doing. It is also treating the wrong doer with dignity. Am I making sense?

Parthiv was tongue tied.

Palsetia: Culture is all that. It is a certain kindness, a certain understanding, a certain non-judgement, a certain gentleness – not towards the criminal, but in how we treat him. You see the difference? That word culture comes from the Latin colere – which means nurture, tend, till, cultivate… see now? Every action of a company must only nurture; never cause pain. Never humiliate. Never take away. Let culture decide, not individuals. Am I making sense?

Parthiv had looked into those greying old eyes and seen sense exactly as the elder saw it. From that position, he even understood.

But as he drove home that night, he was not sure he could show his colleagues what he had seen.