The long road to a safe workplace

The #metoo movement has provided a wake-up call for leaders across India Inc to significantly up the ante in building safe and gender-balanced workplaces

Indrajit Gupta

[By Prentsa Aldundia, under Creative Commons.]

MJ Akbar’s decision to quit the government will go down as a major victory for the #metoo movement in India. Yet, sounding the victory bugle may be terribly premature. There are thousands of women who are still afraid to come forward and report cases of sexual harassment at the workplace. The fact is that India Inc is still far away from building a safe and gender-balanced workplace that provides a sense of security for people to willingly come forward and report incidents and also believe that there will be a fair and thorough hearing of their complaints.

Last week, Moneycontrol made one of its reporters trawl through the annual reports of the Nifty 50 companies for the financial year 2018 to identify the number of sexual harassment complaints that had been recorded. Despite the fact that it was for just one year and somewhat unidimensional, the findings from the data were quite revealing.

Here’s what they found:

  • Wipro, ICICI Bank, Infosys, TCS, and Axis Bank top the charts with 101, 99, 77, 62 and 47 complaints, respectively.
  • There are just 13 companies in the Nifty50, including the top five listed above, that have recorded complaints in double digits. These 13 companies together account for about 87.5% of the total 616 complaints recorded by the Nifty50 companies. The skew is quite revealing.
  • There are 13 companies that don’t have a single complaint to show for. These include Grasim, Reliance Industries, Adani Ports, JSW Steel, Indiabulls Housing Finance, and the like. (Notwithstanding differences in the nature of business and level of gender diversity within, experts say that about 100+ complaints in a year for every 100,000 employees is the thumb rule.)
  • Among the rest, most of the 74 companies have recorded sexual harassment complaints, many of them in low single digits, often as low as one or two for the whole year. Like Mahindra & Mahindra, and Sun Pharma, which have just one complaint in the entire year.

So what does this tell us?

  • There’s a reason why Wipro, ICICI Bank, Infosys and TCS are ahead of the pack. Their global operations forced them to put in place systems much before it became mandatory in India. K Ramkumar, who headed HR and served as executive director on the board of ICICI Bank and is now founder of Leadership Centre, says the bank started its journey with prevention of sexual harassment in 2003 around the time it was expanding overseas. And it was felt that the Indian operations also ought to have the same system in place. On the other hand, the tech companies on the Nifty50 have been able to refine their approach based on the early start—and the experience they’ve picked up from handling multiple cases over the years.
  • The level of complaints is an important indicator to gauge whether people trust the system to deliver. And whether the system of natural justice will be brought to bear. If women aren’t willing to step up and complain, it signals that most people don’t have confidence that they will find justice—or at least be given a fair hearing. Online surveys published recently such as this one seem to suggest that about 78% of sexual harassment cases go unreported. Either because women don’t have a supportive environment at work, or are too afraid to approach the formal system (the internal complaints committee or the HR department) or are actively discouraged by their family.
  • There is a learning curve involved even for companies looking to build robust internal systems. For instance, Ramkumar says that it took nearly four years initially for the new system to settle down. And even though it was helmed by senior women leaders inside the bank, initially their capacity to take an independent view of the cases that came up wasn’t up to scratch. They would find it hard to be objective and hesitate to pin responsibility for errant behaviour displayed by male colleagues.
  • The key issue is that it isn’t about tokenism. Setting up an internal complaints committee (ICC), as mandated by law, is one thing. Some firms simply publicise the fact. But do very little beyond that or look to create a strong workplace culture. And then there are firms that do not even tell employees about its existence—as many Indian firms have chosen to do—something that is totally unacceptable.
  • The latest round of revelations around #metoo have galvanised some firms, including some in the media industry, to promptly write to employees urging them to come forward and register complaints. It is entirely reactive—and a belated attempt to appear even-handed.
  • Sadly, not much by way of long-term change will come of it, even though a few heads may roll. The challenge is to make the transition from a compliance-based approach to a new workplace culture that supports safe and gender-neutral behaviour.
  • Cultures don’t get formed overnight. It requires open, facilitated conversations led by leaders, as opposed to check-box training programmes that our HR folks simply love organising, forcing employees to attend, kicking and screaming. The good news, though, is that #metoo has whipped up a storm that’s forced men—and women—to take notice.
  • Developing a nuanced understanding at all levels of the organisation is an altogether different challenge. Issues around consent, for instance, are deeply cultural and based on past conditioning. A lot of their current understanding of what constitutes consent is shaped by people’s own cultural context. A simple set of dos and don’ts may not always work. Ishani Roy, who is founder at Serein Inc, based in Bengaluru, which works with companies to advance their inclusion and diversity agenda, has been writing about the issue in media. Like this latest oped piece for Mint. “It’s important to have an open dialogue. Having a gender neutral dialogue definitely helps,” she said. Helping people deal with the shades of grey, rather than operate in black and white is never easy. Most women have seen too much of black and white. And most men aren’t even aware of what women go through by way of groping in buses and trains. Making them aware is a good first step, she adds.
  • Storytelling in town halls or even in smaller group sessions is a great way to mobilise culture building, says Ramkumar. Storytelling cuts out the abstract—and provides practical examples of actual cases that may have come up internally. And these cases are valuable enough to be made available across the board via the intranet as well, says Ramkumar. Over the years, video-based case studies have emerged as a popular way to instil the precepts of correct behaviour in potentially tricky situations. Like not setting up meetings in a hotel room, but in a coffee shop. Or at an office party, staying away from the dance floor if you’ve had a few rounds of drinks. But now, the efficacy of cookie-cutter videos that aren't tailored for each organisation is being called into question, as this piece from CNN Money argues.
  • Overreliance on formal systems like the ICC work only to a limited extent. For large companies with dispersed operations, tackling issues at the periphery, be it a branch office or a retail outlet or a factory in a distant location, is tough to handle with an overly centralised approach. Using informal networks of local evangelists and mentors from within the organisation could help provide support for women who might find them a lot more approachable than someone senior away at the regional or head office.
  • In the end, this kind of culture change, more often than not, depends on the intent of the senior leadership team at the helm. If the top four or five leaders in the firm are strongly committed, half the battle is won.

Getting the procedural aspects is somewhat easier. There are now enough resources freely available online, like this paper from Nishith Desai Associates shows. So, getting a grip on the process—be it a well-functioning enquiry committee or a calibrated matrix of punishments to deal with different kinds of offences—isn’t quite as challenging to put in place.

Showing the will to act, however, is a leadership call. And initiating an open, inclusive dialogue to sensitise people—both men and women—is a necessary first step.

So here’s the moot point: Are you willing to start the conversation inside your enterprise? Eventually, it could make the difference between a truly progressive organisation and one that merely pays lip service to diversity and inclusion.

(Please note that the data in the original Moneycontrol study has been updated earlier today, to reflect a correction in the number of complaints filed at Tech Mahindra, which was originally shown to be nil, but the company later clarified that it was, in reality, 28.)

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About the author

Indrajit Gupta
Indrajit Gupta

Co-founder and Director

Founding Fuel

Indrajit Gupta is a business journalist and editor with over two decades of experience. He was the Founding Editor of the Indian edition of Forbes magazine. Within four years of its launch, Forbes India became the most influential magazine in its space.

He is the co-founder and director at Founding Fuel.

He has served in leadership positions at many of the leading media brands in the country. Before taking up the assignment to start up the India edition of Forbes magazine, Gupta was the Resident Editor of The Economic Times in Mumbai and before that, the National Business Editor of The Times of India.

Over the years, Gupta has built a reputation for grooming talent and creating highly energised and purposeful newsrooms. He has interviewed several leading global thought-leaders and business leaders including CK Prahalad, Ram Charan, Wayne Brockbank, Sumantra Ghoshal, Carlos Ghosn and Nitin Nohria, and also led cutting-edge joint research-based projects with McKinsey & Co, The Great Place to Work Institute, Boston Consulting Group, KMPG and Coopers & Lybrand.

He won the Polestar journalism award in 2010 and was awarded the Chevening fellowship by the British Foreign office in 1999. Gupta is an alumnus of the SP Jain Institute of Management and Research, Mumbai and a B.Com (Hons) graduate from St Xavier's College, Calcutta.

Gupta teaches a course on Business Problem Solving at his alma mater. He writes a column named Strategic Intent in Business Standard’s edit page. He lives in Mumbai with his wife and two young daughters.

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