A person closely associated with the upper reaches of the banking industry narrates an incident at an overseas offsite of a leading MNC bank a couple of months ago. The head of retail banking held a party in his room for all those directly reporting to him, including several women, some married. He went around hugging the women, even pecking some on the cheek. One of the top HR executives of the company, also a woman, was in the same room.
When they returned to India, the HR official sent a message to all the women present at the party emphasising that Omerta was the better part of valour: ‘Remember our pact. What happens at the offsite, stays at the offsite’ evidently meant to be a variant of the famous saying ‘What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.’
At another top MNC bank, some years ago, the country manager in charge of retail banking was a known womaniser. He was in the habit of sending out messages, inviting female executives out for coffee. Other practices were rather more sinister including transferring the husband of a Mumbaibased female colleague to Kolkata so he could pursue a relationship. His reputation was an open secret but the bank chose to ignore these indiscretions. When the noise increased, the official was transferred to a global role. Much later, he lost his job after a woman in the UK complained of harassment.
At a PR firm, an MD used the power of his position to force women to enter into ‘relationships’. There were some women who did not seem too uncomfortable with his advances in return for favours. Some resisted. In case of one woman, the MD’s attentions resulted in tragedy when she had a nervous breakdown. The company took no action as the errant honcho was a good manager and had a great rapport with clients. He subsequently moved on to another firm on his own accord. No action was ever taken against him.
Incidents such as these are neither new, nor rare, and occur far too often at workplaces across corporate India. However, when a CXO is the transgressor, organisations often turn a blind eye. HR pundits say people in positions of power think nobody will pay attention to their misdemeanours. Women are Not Always Victims
“A guy who is a superstar is forgiven everything. But women need to take a stand. If something is not going right, someone needs to ring the bell. Even if someone takes notice and does something about it, at the very least, the humiliation that the person will go through will teach him a lesson,” says Nina Chatrath, partner, leadership consulting, Heidrick & Struggles.
She adds that women are not always victims. Some willingly go along for career advancement or the love of lucre. She cites an example of an FMCG firm where a top official was having an affair with a secretary. He got her a house, a car and bumped her up two levels to a higher designation. Nothing came of the incident.
Phaneesh Murthy’s sacking is an exception; otherwise, the general norm has been that CXOs and top bosses have indulged in such affairs and got away with it, says Manish Sabharwal, chairman, TeamLease Services. Very often, in relationships of the kind Murthy was allegedly involved in, when the imbalance in power is stark, the women who get shortchanged often leave in frustration or are subtly eased out of the organisation.
COMPANIES ARE GETTING TOUGHER
This state of affairs is set change, says Sabharwal, on account of more women in senior roles; and organisations opting for a stricter code of conduct will all contribute to this. Murthy, for instance, was pushed out on a technicality. He was fired for not informing the board of his affair. In its statement announcing Murthy’s sacking, the board said it had not found evidence of sexual harassment though this is disputed by the lawyer for the complainant.
There have also been cases where a boss has been unceremoniously dropped. Last year at a leading consulting firm, an affair between a top official and a subordinate became widely known. After a detailed probe into the matter, the senior official was asked to leave citing grounds such as misusing the organisation’s time and resources and taking advantage of his position.
The HR head of a Bangalore-based BPO says he had to let go of a vice-president for sexual harassment in 2010. A young achiever, the V-P made suggestive remarks to his direct reportee and the incident was registered as a case of harassment to HR. A committee was set up and in a few days, the VP asked to resign.
Chatrath adds that MNCs have a proper process and a scope for redressal of these issues as compared to most Indian companies. However, most still choose to try and sweep these issues under the carpet till someone lodges a complaint. Around 4 years ago, Hithendra Ramachandran director of Ikya Human Capital Solutions, received an assignment to fill up a CXO post for a Mumbai-based company. When he asked the company’s HR head the reasons for the earlier employee leaving, he was told that the CXO during his travel to a branch from the head office had made a pass at a female colleague who worked with the branch office. The CXO was immediately asked to leave. Ramachandran says he knows of 12-15 cases of termination due to sexual harassment charges.
AFFAIRS GONE WRONG
According to headhunters and senior HR officials, in many cases allegations of harassment surface after affairs that were consensual to begin with. That’s why most don’t advocate work relationships since they can come back to bite you. “Most cases which come out in the open are probably instances of consensual relationships gone sour,” says the HR head of a consulting firm. “Otherwise most cases of harassment don’t see the light of day. Women themselves often don’t stand up for themselves for the fear of social stigma. That way, a lot of seniors tend to walk over them.”
He added: “Organisations are worried about their reputation. So even in extreme cases, the boss is allowed to quietly quit and no song and dance is made about it. If he’s thrown out or publicly sacked, then women would be a lot more comfortable about working in these places.”
Recruiters say that one major motivation for hushing up the exact circumstances of a CXO’s exit is to ensure his conduct is not an impediment to future employment.
The V-P of the Bangalore-based HR firm, for instance, was given a regular relieving letter although there was no physical abuse, the HR head said.
Says K Sudarshan, managing partner for executive search firm EMA Partners, “Around 1-2% of resumes of top brass have rumours of harassment and affairs attached to it, leading to termination. Also if there has been termination of service because of an affair then companies and search firms will still pick up the resume because no one wants to take a moral stance. Rumours of sexual harassment get the same treatment unless proven . Only if the person has been found guilty will companies and recruitment firms not take up his resume for consideration.” In his 26 years of work experience, the HR Head of the Bangalore-based BPO says that he has seen 4-5 cases of members of the top brass being asked to leave because of misconduct. In his previous IT firm, a V-P with 25 years of work experience was fired after physically assaulting his secretary and demanding sexual favours. During the committee meeting, the V-P owned up explaining that “he could not restrain himself.” His efforts to find a job were unsuccessful as the HR head had to tell other firms the reason behind his termination during reference checks. Usually though, organisations do not reveal if their senior executives have been asked to go because of sexual harassment. In case of reference checks, companies use words like “integrity issues” and “insubordination” to cover up.
Source :The Economics Times.
Date : 28/05/2013
Writer : DEVINA SENGUPTA & SREERADHA D BASU (BANGALORE)