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BW Businessworld

Case Study: Choosing To Live Fearlessly

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Amai Mankad reached the conference room later than appointed. Team Blanca was already in discussion. Amai had been held up by the call from Sujoy Mitta to join him and the head of HR, Duleep Singh, in a discussion on policy on sexual harassment (SH). What was meant to be a rough consultation, had dragged on for longer, and Amai joined her team late for the meeting.

Amai was a senior consultant with Kippol India, a firm of management consultants that had set up shop in India less than a year ago. Sujoy, the country head, had proposed that Kippol institute a policy on SH where the victim was under compulsion to report a perception of SH within 24 hours of such occurrence; later reporting would not be entertained. Additionally, the woman could choose not to escalate the complaint but merely report it. Equally, men who collected more than one complaint against them would be fired. And lastly, women who had made several such complaints against different men would need to spend time in counselling if they wished to keep their job at Kippol. (See Crossing All Boundaries, BW, 25 October)

Amai: It was an unusual meeting guys. They want to fix policy on SH; very good. A lot of what Sujoy says is fine it seems, but I wonder...

Team Blanca's seven members were all senior consultants or upper junior consultants, who now buzzed with their thoughts and surprise that Sujoy was reacting so sharply in defense of his ex-boss.

Akshay Vaidya: He must have been a very close friend and watched this play out and, hence, carries the angst much more. Besides, he has a point too. It is extremely difficult to prove that the woman did not silently consent to the advances; I have seen abusive behaviour from males that women tolerate. Very simply, even a voice raised in admonition, which men think is their right, and women unwittingly accept as daddy too raised his voice with mummy and it was okay! Just the other day, Kapil got upset with Nitya, his secretary; whatever the reason, raising his voice was not an option, please!

Amai: I have known women to get flustered between ‘is this wrong' and ‘is this nice'. It has been my experience that between the loneliness of life and need for attention, the security of a strong alpha male attention makes women ignore many  ethical questions — Is this right? Do I really want it? — and silently become parties to the potentially dissonant behaviour.

Meghna: Tony Blair's book, A Journey, makes a sharp observation on this choice. He talks of the suspension of responsibility, the creation of a moment or hour or day of abandoning duty and propriety as being very enchanting. He even says people are tired of being responsible. "Suddenly you are transported out of your world of intrigue and issues and... the serious piled on the serious and just put on a remote desert island of pleasure, out of it all, released, carefree... the desire to escape. And it's nothing really to do with how happy or otherwise your marriage is. It's an explosion of irresponsibility in an otherwise responsible life..."

So you see, I can see this happening to anyone. Especially the higher you go. It is just a mesmerising trip... and then bingo! You wake up,  career gone... and then the lawyers!

Given all this, Sujoy's suggestion of a window of six days within which both aggressor and victim should conclude the allegations and name calling outside the office is sensible.

Amai: Again and again the moot question is: how is the organisation a party to this? This is the whole point. If a man sexually harasses a woman, how is the organisation a party to it? I know of an organisation where the Board threatened its CEO with his life; there was no recourse within the ambit of the Companies' Act and all that he could do was file an FIR at the local police station! So, is this bigger because it involves sex and is, hence, slushy? Let us be reasonable. How is an organisation ever, ever a party to it if a man misbehaves with a woman?

Rajan: Because he is an officer of the company and by law of estoppels he holds out that his conduct is that of the company's.

Amai: Great. And once we see that the company as an entity can never hope to sexually harass anyone, by law of deduction, we can see that the harassment was by man upon woman and consequently, the company is sequitur non qua. Is it okay? When a manager holds out to the world that he is a senior officer of Arcola and slaps the airport manager for a flight delay, does Air India, for example, sue Arcola or jail the manager? Does Arcola plead to Air India or sack the manager summarily? Doesn't the same thing apply?

In every SH case, I have been stunned by the role attributed to the company. SH is individual, not corporate. So any promises you hear, are individual. Your boss made promises? Please know he cannot make any promise for tender that is not based on a performance appraisal. And any woman who believes that it is enforceable is not intelligent enough to work in an organisation. And any man who makes such promises is culpable of fraud and must be sent home with a pink card that says in three languages that he lacks ordinary intelligence.

Meghna: Compensation is also a function of this easy penalising of the company. How else do we justify a Kristy Fraser-Kirk slapping $37  million punitive claim against her retailer employer David Jones, its directors and its CEO Mark McInnes? Why 37 million? Isn't that because McInnes is CEO? Because David Jones, the retailer, is high-profile and blue chip? Isn't that why in every high-profile SH case, the women in question slapped unheard of amounts as compensation? Is this a function of what the traffic can bear and the fragility of the corporate brand name? SH happens in small shops and tiny industrial galas too. I am saying the temerity is commensurate with the financial net worth of the aggressor so that SH appeals are usually seen at that level where the victim can really extract a bigger pound of flesh. SH is now an opportunity to earn, not a moment to punish.

Amai: Similarly, the whole business of coming back with a complaint after six months. Companies are over-anxious to give women the benefit of the doubt. That is why we entertain her complaint without an expiry date to it! I was speaking to an activist and he said: "Legally, you cannot put a time limit to when a lady can complain." I was amazed. Why not? Why really not? No wonder then, in at least three cases, the ladies came back after six months and said they were harassed. What is the argument in her favour then? This is not about the aggressor, but about the mindset possible for ladies to adopt. In the process of trying to ‘cure' men, are we exposing women to a new virus? So here is a question: why are SH cases usually among the financially wealthy where the suit brought upon the individual is in multiple millions of dollars?

Rajan: Monetary compensation is a part of all heinous crimes — death by drunken driving, marital violence, etc. — so why should SH be different? It's just that it gets more media attention.

 Radha: Are we, as a society, beginning to associate the entry of women into mainstream with SH as a by-product? That would be rather nasty and unpleasant. Because women in the workplace must come to be seen as equals and any policy must also be such that it effortlessly purges all men who use domination and power to offend or harass a woman, and all women who use coquetry and cunning to get ahead.

Indira: Policy is dumb. You will never make it big here with policy, trust me. You want to make it professionally, then don't ask for policy, don't ever complain about harassment; just watch out for yourself and keep moving.

Amai: You surprise me... what do you mean?

Indira: Think. It is this whining, this griping, pleading and posturing that is keeping women in the limelight. You are getting attention because you are constantly in the news about your difference, your special condition, your multiple roles and whatnot. Have we women been in the news because we are darn good like coffee? Either it is a demand for diversity, or flexible  careers, or maternity or safety or SH. Can we take over? Think. Can this become a woman's world where men are found? No, na? All the time we are asking for allowances, and who from? The very perpetrators of bias and harassment! This is so pathetic.

Whereas, we need to form some kind of national-level organisations that protect women of all kinds in the workplace; groups that take care of our ageing parents and in-laws, our little babies in the crib, our menopause dilemmas, our teen kids crises, our stress and breakdowns, our late night travel safety, our environment and maybe even our ‘can someone tell me how to whip up a gourmet meal for two with a stick of ridged gourd?'

We women are seemingly relevant for all the wrong reasons! I do think we must stop Sujoy from framing any policy. There is no need for a policy! We can do it!

Rajan:  It may work for some mindsets, Indira. Maybe you could ask for an option to not be a part of policy. But there are entry levels in mindsets, regardless of grades, who need policy.

Amai: Indira actually has a point. There is no need for policy. I have had the good fortune to work in some truly excellent workplaces. We did not need huge posters stuck on the walls  declaring it a zero-tolerance workplace. The seniors set the right example by conduct! Yet, I also know of places with posters decrying "harassment at the workplace" and yet no one ever picked up the phone to call HR. The combination of power, aggression and harassment can be deadly, my friend!

Radha: Sujoy's design... how many women will call HR? It's like registering an FIR! What is the kind of exposure you want as a professional? Why would a woman want to throw herself open to the indignity of having to prove that she is being SH-ed? Can she expect ‘equal opportunities' when these words are associated with her? Just think... you, Amai, heading banking vertical, you slice through strategy effortlessly, yet you ask to be protected from SH. Are you saying you don't know how to handle it and be safe? It is not all about qualifications, experience and abilities. It is about comfort in working together. And ‘women' are still seen as different enough to need ‘special care' — not as easy as just having the guys hang out together and making things happen! Why?

Mini:  Let me tell you a story about a lady colleague at Teffer. Let us name her Tara. Over time, she had the following labels stuck on her by various people she worked with: difficult, severe, serious, uptight, stuck up, annoying. So that her labels spoke for her much more.

She started getting the glad eye from her boss's boss, the number two in the organisation — we will name him ‘Man'. She didn't realise it because she had come to fear the various labels on her. He would call her to discuss the brand, or promos, jumping her boss. Then he would talk to her about a movie he saw the night before. Soon he began shutting the door when she came in. She would often say, "It will be good to have my boss in on this discussion", but he would say: "Sometimes it is good for me to deal with you directly! How often I have seen that the boss is deaf to a subordinate's point of view and, as a result, the company loses a great pathbreaking idea!" Idiot!

Soon he was brushing past her, and then one day he was all husky and hands.

Tara was shaken for three days and on day four went to HR. The HR manager was taken aback and asked her to be quiet till he got back. The big bosses met, conferred and slapped heads. Then they called her for a counselling session, where — now hear carefully — they told her that she had a personality problem and was seeing more than there was, reading more lines than the author had written. That "he was not like that"! Whereas a 360 on her had thrown up repeated words like "difficult", "complex" and "poor inter-personal skills".

What do you say to that? The combo of aggression, power and harassment. They could not afford to have the number two in trouble and on the front pages as he was the driving force behind a huge merger, which was high-profile and pathbreaking! Worse, I learnt later, the senior men declared among themselves that they did not see anything wrong, that they too indulged in mild "talk" with the secretaries and such like; it was "just natural and harmless"!

Having convinced her so, they put a report on her file without referring to the incident. And six months later, they hung her with the same rope with which they had tied her into silence — "poor 360-degree appraisal revealing poor  people skills". Tara was shocked. The sad part is she believed the verdict. None of us knew anything till at a small farewell lunch she broke down, truth spilled and all of us who had each stuck post-its on her — ‘weird', ‘uptight', ‘difficult' — regretted it real hard.

When we stick labels on people, it is often done innocently to classify a person for future reference — ‘slow', ‘will crib', ‘will not deliver', ‘risky' — not to rubbish them maliciously. Little did we realise that those post-its would also be her epitaph. Then one more lady gulped and said Man had behaved funny with her too. ‘Have dinner with me honey, and we can fix that housing problem'. But she thought she lacked the sophistication of modernity and maybe he was just being stylish! So she never mentioned it!

Rajan: What a horrible story. Wish I had not heard this...

Mini: More follows, Rajan. Four of us quit along with her, without a job. We sent a joint resignation to HR. Of course, I must confess we were scared stiff! Stupid, but we were not used to all this! Our exit letter read: "Having dissected the antecedents to the departure of Tara, we have decided to be with her than with the organisation, which seems to lack clarity of values." It was too brave; they hounded us; told us they would blacklist us with all placement agencies. They did so too. But the placement agencies, the top three, were wiser than we credit them.

Akshay: Aha! When you gals were saying ‘company cannot be a party to this crime', I was wondering... now I see Tara's case is 100 per cent perpetrated by the company formed by men with loose morals and lacking the maturity to manage an organisation. In that case, the company is clearly a party to the SH case and must be sued out of existence.

Meghna: Therefore, Tara needed to have filed a suit against the company. She lacked the confidence to stand up. That environment of zero-tolerance is created when she is surrounded by seniors and peers who understand the nuances of SH, and will not tolerate even the mildest forms of disrespect shown to any woman on the team — irrespective of role, contribution or labels.

Mini: These are not things that are ensured by HR policies and frameworks. These are what are ensured in a workplace where the dignity of every human being is more important. All organisations need to make sure that managerial power is balanced by other ‘watchdog committees' — mini juries — recognised for their respect for human dignity and with the experience to back it.

Akshay: Harassment and abuse happens when the aggressors feel more ‘powerful' than others — this could be because they are very intelligent, qualified, efficient, and highly achievement-oriented and, therefore, consider themselves ‘indispensable' to the organisation. Organisations that support or keep rewarding such ‘high achievers', knowingly send out a clear message that they are not serious about implementing anti-harassment policies. I am enamoured with Mini's idea of a mini jury that is made of four men and four women who will hold office for two years and who will judge all cases of SH. We will call this ‘the committee for human dignity'.

Meghna: Tara's story has shaken me. It reads like a treacherous science thriller. I think we must have this committee or jury and it will work for all-round benefit. Sujoy must be told this: that core to all this is understanding why women will not step forward unless they are sure they will not be penalised or ‘labelled' for bringing the issue out into the open. Can a woman truly continue to work in the same organisation with the same or better opportunities after a case of SH has been filed by her? Will other men in the organisation continue to treat her with respect and not brand her as a ‘troublemaker'? Will she be marginalised, because peers do not want to associate with someone who has taken a tough stand?

Amai: I am not sure we have a solution yet, Mini. Who will have answers to these questions? What men in an organisation answer these?

Mini: Oh no. Not the men, never! The answers lie with women. The woman has to mine these answers, for they lie within her. And face them and make very clear choices. It is finally all about choices, nothing more or less. Finally, her mind is the world where she lives. The answers will arise out of her selfappraisal, conviction, courage and a decision to live fearlessly. And this pans all grades and levels of women — junior-most front office receptionist or vice-president. Bottom line, girls, is this: sexual harassment is about an emotion called, "I can hurt you so badly..."

She has to choose to live fearlessly, that's all!

Classroom Discussion
Do organisations have a policy for murder, physical assault or stealing? Why not? Then why SH?

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