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Case Analysis: Empathy, Not Apathy

Duwell is to be judged, not by the outcome of its findings but by how it acted to arrive at a finding, writes Somasekhar Sundaresan

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Firuza menon’s experience is more real than many can even begin to imagine. After all, a business corporate – even one involved in the boring business of manufacturing computer printers and peripherals – is but a microcosm of the society it operates in. Domestic violence and its acceptance as natural – even by the victim Sarla herself and her father – is reflective of social reality. Being literate is of no relevance to such acceptance. The illiterate are perhaps more likely to fight for their rights since they don’t suffer from the qualms of disrupting well-manicured pretences of honour, when seeking to enforce their rights.

Duwell India is in serious trouble. It has a leadership that is clueless and prone to extreme reactions. Firuza’s overnight reaction shows tinges of “emotional contagion” – she has decided that Mukesh Madhav is guilty, and is so worked up that she is unable to build consensus on an intervention despite heading HR. In sharp contrast, the others in Duwell’s leadership display symptoms of abject apathy bordering on “emotional cruelty” – hunting desperately for reasons to bury their head in the sand hoping that their problems would vanish. This is a recipe for making Duwell a horribly unhappy soulless place to work in – something that can have serious long-term adverse commercial implications, bringing the problem outside the doorstep of the Mukesh Madhav household and well into Duwell’s premises.

First, the era of working in a blinkered environment, turning a blind eye to what employees do outside the building gate is long dead. In fact, Aarti Sinha is rightly aware that everything in this nation is “Breaking News”. Trials in kangaroo courts on the television screens can finish business organisations. Picture the costs inflicted by media coverage of social activists picketing and campaigning against a commercial entity that is accused of being uncaring for injuries inflicted by its star employees.

In August, The New York Times wrote a weekend feature based on anecdotal evidence to paint Amazon as a horrible and soul-crushing place to work in. Campaigns to boycott Amazon went viral. CEO Jeff Bezos had to put out many fires with a very humble public face. Closer home, Tehelka’s assiduously-built reputation and the editor’s impeccable personal standing were finished in just three days – a period considered too long for her to reflect on how to deal with allegations of rape against its founder. Therefore, it does not even make commercial sense for Duwell to shove Mrs Choksi’s call under the carpet. Why, even Firuza could become a whistle blower, step down as head of HR, and go public with how badly Duwell reacts.

Second, calling in the lawyers is not necessarily a bad response. At the minimum, it would show that the organisation cares for knowing what its duties are. Ajay Deolali, the in-house counsel, indeed demonstrates the same apathy that consumes the rest of Duwell’s leadership. However, a good lawyer would explain to Duwell that the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005 was consciously drafted to address the victim’s right to civil reliefs such as injunctions, compensation and monetary relief, without making domestic violence a “crime” that creates dependence on the police. Laws that criminalise undesirable actions fallaciously assume that the fear of going to jail or of even being put to death would solve deep-rooted social problems. Remember that the draconian changes to the criminal law on sexual assault after the Nirbhaya case in Delhi did nothing to stop the crime at Shakti Mills in Mumbai.

Third, Mukesh Madhav has a right to be heard, and Duwell has an obligation to confront him and also give him a chance to explain himself against the serious charges. Judging him without confronting him is as wrong as pretending that the problem does not exist. One may eventually find that Mrs Choksi was lying. Or, one may find that her call was indeed accurate. However, Duwell is to be judged, not by the outcome of its findings but by how it reacted to arrive at a finding. Whether Duwell was compassionate and demonstrated empathy, will alone determine whether it is a company not to be ostracised. Even if Duwell were to end up only pointing Mrs Choksi to the options available to her under the law, it would have handled its stakeholder interests well.

The writer heads the Securities Law and Financial Sector regulatory practice at JSA, a national law firm

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(This story was published in BW | Businessworld Issue Dated 28-12-2015)