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Case Study: When Boundaries Have Been Crossed

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Sujoy Mitta read the news item in The Eco Times with surprise. Old memories came back cascading. His ex-boss at Kippol India Arjun Sinha was back in the news.

Sujoy was the country manager of Arcola & Co, a firm of management consultants. Arcola had set up shop in India recently headquartering in Delhi. The firm had also hired its second partner, Kapil Raman, who was to look after the marketing vertical.

Heading Arcola's HR activities in India was Duleep Singh, who had been with Sujoy at Kippol. Calling him now, Sujoy said, "Did you see the Eco Times today? Arjun has been acquitted in the sexual harassment case. Unprecedented and unusual judgement too… Yes, it's on page 4. Gosh! Five long years and it ruined his career!  Oh.. nothing in the report. But I am told she was inconsistent in her allegations and the defence swung using that as handle. But I also know that there being no serious law on sexual harassment (SH), the case must have fizzled out. Can you come over? We need to talk..."

Entering, Duleep said, "A moment of emotional aberration cannot be dissected with the precision of logic or law. Do you recall Parvati Marar, the audit trainee at Kippol? GK was her boss. He used to play word games with her on email, send her five words daily and ask her to explain their meanings to him. She said, one out of the five was invariably a sexually provocative word. She had shown me the mails."

Sujoy: Wow! GK? I didn't know! What did you advise her?

Duleep: I asked her to kill him, but she decided to quit. But seriously, she took it up with Nazneen Shroff, the head of internal audit. But Shroff was too shocked to move on it. Parvati said, "Nothing's to be had screaming murder. And if this is Shroff's response, I don't see a future for Kippol. I am a happy person and don't waste time with life's perversions!"

Sujoy: This is the problem. Kippol's systems do not inspire confidence. Men, too, need to know that the system is fair. The key word is ‘fairness', Duleep. My brother's colleague, chap called  Hemant, in marketing was sacked. The wife of another colleague, Dasgupta, complained that Hemant made a pass at her at an office party. Nobody believed it. Hemant, they said, could be accused of many things, but not of making a pass at another man's wife! There was no process that he could resort to for support and defence.

This news about Arjun today has opened old sores and I have been thinking. When Arjun's case happened, Kippol panicked. Kippol did not  conclude the case simply because the company had no thought, let alone a policy on SH. Asking Arjun to go was easy because: a) it helped project Kippol as a gender-sensitive organisation; and b) Arjun had no process to take support from —and this part is very critical. The environment is usually willing to give the woman the benefit of the doubt.

If Kippol had a policy, it would have already communicated a certain expectation of behaviour from its employees. Therefore, I feel even more strongly that a start-up, like ours, which is committed to clean practices, must define its ethos upfront. Management of the business demands governance of the resources too.

It is clear now that with very little in terms of litigation support, both victim and aggressor have to rely on company policy and procedure.

Arcola needs to begin by promulgating on the behaviour of women as well. In a world that had until now left the onus of proving purity on the man, Arcola can say: If you do not report even a doubt of sexual harassment within the day of its occurance, we, as an organisation, will not address it. So I want us to fix the malady at two levels: a) Defining harassment, and b) Window within which the SH matter should be addressed or reported.

I am redefining SH drastically. It does not have to be only about even an allusion to favours or an attraction... it can be as simple as harassing the gender using social conditioning and traits. For example, a woman can be harassed by being made to work late knowing that it will come in the way of her duty to her infant or children... yes?

Duleep: Yes — it stems from this desire to dominate.

Sujoy: Correct. Then I am also saying that it is not just the action, but even a perception of an action (and never mind the intention) as being sexually oppressive or offensive can constitute harassment. So, if an action of an individual is perceived as harassment, then that makes it so. What this means is, we operate a little ‘sooner'. Take the case of Parvati Marar that you mentioned today. GK can take the stance that he was not intending to sexually harass, but if Parvati perceives that his actions or words were sexually harassing or offensive, then it will be declared sexual harassment.

Duleep: Let's get Kapil on this as well, since he has just come on board.
Kapil, who headed Arcola's marketing practice, mulled over Sujoy's suggestion, but felt that this kind of strict directing was going to restrict healthy camaraderie and free play among teams. "What that does then is that everyone has to weigh his words, watch what he is saying… No?"

Sujoy: Yes; it's time we brought caution into our thought, word and deed. Then again, this is about those people who loosen their tongue to test or tease the waters, if I may say so.

Kapil: I agree, Sujoy. Now I look at it from Arcola's image point of view, what does a sexual harassment suit tell about us, the company? Not a secure working atmosphere for women, no sensitivity in management towards women.

Duleep: There is a lot at stake here. The PR debacle that is bound to follow when a SH suit comes out in the open — think Penguin Publishing, think HP, think David Jones!

Kapil: And the loss to the brand image! We will be known as the consulting firm against whom a SH suit was filed, and not as one that produces great strategy or solutions! It is an unpleasant diversion in the brand image.

Duleep: Let us ask Amai in on this ideation. A woman's perspective will give the policy the right balance...

Amai, a senior consultant, was amused. "See, everyone wants gender sensitivity and whatnot, but understand it takes a lot of emotional and spiritual stamina to be gender sensitive. 

"Most companies think ‘taking care' means opening doors for her or offering her a chair. Taking care only means being inclusive.  Organisations have built-in callous attitudes when faced with a woman with a difficulty: ‘you were the one who wanted to go to business school, you wanted to get into sales, now you put up with it like a ‘real man'!

"Even at interviews they ask: ‘Are you sure you can handle sales?' Hey, you want me in sales, make sure you create an environment that is appropriate for me. Companies, that is, men who make up companies, think they should rough up their women to justify her recruitment, to turn them into ‘strong men'.

Only for representation purpose"So, yes, there is confusion in gender treatment. Organisations begin with wanting diversity, gender sensitivity, but wring their hands when women refuse to be changed into strong men! The general approach is this: ‘Rough her up, send her to tough markets and make her take state transport buses…'. Of course, we can do all that, but how does that prove anything to you? That's my question. So a SH policy? Only if we have men with guts of steel, please."

Sujoy: I have seen how unproductive and wasteful and stupid it is to spend your energies fighting a man who may or may not have harassed a woman. Now if he has, then I am going to have to jump up and down to appease the woman and make her see that we are a women-friendly and a safe organisation, which, in any case, after one SH episode, I won't be able to prove... Then again, if the man has not harassed the woman, I will have a horrendous time proving to the media and the internal audience that, no, this guy is clean. 

Kapil: Bluntness is what is needed. Sack the man, give the lady a written apology, compensation, apologise to her and all the female employees in your organisation, to all your consumers, shareholders — tell them what action you have taken; hire a reputed consultant for a company policy on SH, take all employees through a week of training, invite other women to come forward if they felt harassed in any way, ... stuff like that.

Sujoy: Correct, so I am deciding that we will place responsibilities where they belong.

Kapil: It is about taking responsibility and making that aspect into a marketing initiative, Sujoy, like J&J did with Tylenol. So, you bite the bullet; but go through such a drastic transformation that you stand to become the most friendly workplace for women! It is a matter of great joy for a large corporation to take accountability and change itself with the very same efficiency that it conducts business.

Sujoy: Yes, but would I ever know which of the two parties are speaking the truth? And should I be spending time on laundering my employees' personal perversions? What I would rather do is make it clear that if there is even a perception of harassment, out goes the man. Ditto for the women: if any action of yours or words you speak are perceived as dishonestly made, or based on perception and conditioning and not facts, out you go too. Thus, no man will act before thinking; and no woman will accuse a man of something just to nail him.

Amai: That means hiring the right kind of people — the operative word here is ‘right'; and knowing ‘right' is an art and a science! A woman can even sense potential violation from a distance; it is so easy to tell that leery look, that smile — it makes your heart sink! A man's eyes speak his mind.

Duleep: Are we getting over-reactive? What if we end up sending the wrong messages that are contrary to gender balance and gender sensitivity? Women may choose not to join Arcola.

Sujoy: It is finally about choices, Duleep. Yes, women are at risk; yes, some men are adventurous. But at the end of the day, we have a business to do and my approach is simple: if something obstructs the running of a healthy, happy business, get rid of it. No need to negotiate, navigate, litigate. Have you seen what organisations go through in such situations? Why just SH, even crime, domestic violence, road rage... when these make headlines, the reader first wants to know where the criminal works! And from there they cogitate about the organisation's culture, ethos, sanskaar... It is such a terrible image issue as well!

Therefore, as Amai rightly points out, it comes down to hiring the right kind of people. We will ensure we are taking people who wish to face professional challenges  and who have their values in the right place.

Kapil: It is important to examine that in most SH cases, the ladies filed complaints rather late — six months after the event. I seriously think a demand must also be made on women to act ethically. There should, for example, be a validity period for filing a complaint. If not, it is tantamount to cunning.

Amai: I second that. It is like you did not keep your end of the deal; I waited long enough. Now the trump card is with me. I can invoke it when I realise that it's all ‘give' and no ‘get'. Most cases of delayed cries are deals gone wrong. Yet, technically speaking, she is not ‘wrong' because if  after all her offerings, the ‘contract' is not honoured, then it is harassment in disguise. So, it is disgusting behaviour using company resources. Both must go, I agree.

As a candidate I will choose Arcola as the policy is very fair and square. So, if I am sexually harassed, I quit or I report immediately, not after six months. I agree; a delay of six months stinks.

Sujoy: I am not worried about the corporate image and the ‘aftermath'. I am saying, I am not interested in saving the image. I am interested in creating the image and sustaining it by following process. (‘Saving image' is unethical if you have wronged, by the way.)

Kapil: I disagree, Sujoy! We need to worry   about the aftermath image as well. By sending out a message that we care enough to go the whole hog, we hold the image of having good governance!

Sujoy: Are we in this business to build image? If yes, then we must go for it. But we are not here for that. So let us define who we are and how we wish to be seen. Then we will be all that. If, say, an allegation of SH challenges that position, then the onus of cleaning up will lie between the aggressor and the victim, and the firm will give a very short window in which to resolve it.

The point I am also making is that people have to learn to make choices, learn to steel their hearts and bring closure. If Arjun Sinha's case were to happen at Arcola, the rule would deem that the complainant should report the SH within 24 hours of it occurring. If you don't, it does not exist; if you come back after six months and say, ‘but he did that to me', it won't work.

Amai: What's with the 24-hour deadline? I will take at least a week to think straight after being sexually harassed!

Sujoy: That's what I am saying. You, the victim, has to be able to steel your heart and ask yourself: as a woman, I am vulnerable to attack; but as a woman, do I have to be helpless and break down? Arcola is saying: knowing this, you have opted to work in a mixed gender environment. So being shocked and shaken is natural; but being paralysed and broken is out of character. Be prepared: you will get propositioned and harassed, get leery looks; come and report it. We will sack the fellow. If you are devastated and, hence, wish to keep silent; then endure it, deal with it in the head, cast it off, and keep moving.

At HR, we, in turn, create classifications of complaints: every lady employee can get three chances to report. Each complaint against the same man can be collected against him such that a woman who comes and says ‘he looked at me with bad eyes' can also say ‘but I do not wish to escalate this complaint but merely record it'. HR can collect complaints and the minute they have two complaints against a man, he goes.

On the flip side, if a woman has made five complaints against different men and each of those men have only one complaint against them from her, she must see a counsellor.

Also, let us say there is an assessed case of SH.  The two parties get a month to bring closure, during which time, they will have to be absent from work. At the end of a month, the one in the wrong should quit.

Amai: Fine. I have to report it within 24 hours, but who to? I must get assurance of confidentiality — and no impact on my career!

Sujoy: Perfect! We will hire a firm of lawyers or a psychologist who will receive and record complaints and will be bound by a fiduciary clause and they will advise the company on the way forward. Amai, we will set up a consultant lawyer firm. So if a lady knows that this is the environment for her to work with, then she is already comfortable. She knows that rules are in place and they will work with precision, just as there are rules for salary, increments and LTA. Kapil?

Kapil: Just that all this is a branding initiative, though it overlaps into HR. I feel this is about creating a brand that treats people fairly and
offers an environment of support. So yes, we must have a policy on sexual harassment, but if poised on HR, it will reflect the organisation as built on rules, dos and don'ts. If poised on branding, we deliver a clear image always. Branding speaks for you and your product; HR is grim in appeal.

Sujoy: Fascinating! So tell me, how is my brand of consulting going to be impacted when I make this a branding initiative and my brand of services — if I opt for the HR initiative?

Duleep: If you chose the HR option, you are going to be seen as a risk-averse organisation, or, at the other extreme — a very rash organisation. Because your staffers are going to be seen as frightened, careful, not-flighty people; they will be seen as people who cannot think differently for fear of being misunderstood...

Kapil: In terms of branding, you are saying: I take care of my employees; I clean up my mess in the best possible way; it speaks of humility and a trustworthy personality.

Amai: It says that when I encounter something unpleasant or potentially harmful, I don't abandon it and run away or turn my back to it.

Kapil: I have taken sexual harassment redressal to a level that most of my competitors have not gone to. So this makes me better than my competitors in a sense — I am more enlightened than them; it is about intangible leadership.

Duleep: I just feel rotten about making capital of everything. Sexual harassment is a serious disease in human beings. To leverage that to build equity, feels incorrect. It is ugly and must be regulated, not bandied about like a medal!

To be continued

Classroom Discussion
Is the exertion of power weak? Is that why sexual harassment is always covert?

casestudymeera at gmail dot com