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Needed – a #metoo campaign for the corporate world

KAMAL KARANTH | Updated on January 08, 2018 Published on October 25, 2017

Why are corporates not unmasking managers who make sexual advances towards their colleagues?

Hollywood recently exploded with revelations of sexual predation, the likes of which have never been seen before. Looks like the ill-kept secret of tinsel town got to a precipitative point to burst into a #metoo campaign.

The incident reminded one of the famous quote from the movie Disclosure, “Sexual harassment is about power and not about sex”. It dragged my mind to our corporate life, where too ‘power’ is the key element. Only a few cases have been reported but they too have taken the settlement route. So it’s difficult to assess or make an informed judgement. But it seems like this territory belongs to serial offenders. It’s shocking when people in power are repeatedly accused of crossing the line but not punished. In the corporate world people just leave their jobs when caught, if that is any punishment at all!

The most obvious explanation when somebody is accused of sexual harassment is that it was consensual. Yes, many extramarital affairs gone wrong have later been alleged to be harassment. It’s not lost on many that people in power abuse their position to put their colleagues in compromising situations where ‘consent’ borders on abuse.

The worst part is that a reasonable number of peers would be aware of these offenders. But they feel helpless or do not have reasonable trust in the organisation to escalate matters. When incidents break out they acknowledge that such behaviours are prevalent.

I spoke to a few HR heads to get more insights into how corporates have been dealing with the problem. Some of the incidents described are derived from these conversations, highlighting the challenges around this sensitive issue.

In a large consulting company an account manager stopped coming to work abruptly. She refused to file a complaint but highlighted the behaviour of her CEO. He would always call her for individual review meetings to another city at 9 a.m. This meant she had to travel and stay in a hotel the previous night. That night he would organise dinner with her. This became a regular feature. One such evening he took her to his suite on the pretext of showing her around - and grabbed her arm. She ran away and never reported to work again. She feared her family wouldn’t support her career, and the humiliation at work after reporting the case was understandably daunting.

The CEO lasted another three years. There were murmurs from departing female colleagues about his behaviour till one brave girl eventually filed a complaint. The company negotiated a compensation with the lady, sacked the CEO and the COO took over overnight. But it did not call out the CEO who was its face in the media. I am sure it could have protected the girl’s privacy and still made an example out of him. We might soon see this pest as a CEO at another firm.

I wonder how the system of reference checks works for senior executives. If such serious misconduct is never discovered by hiring employers, what, then, is checked? Also,what prevents reputed companies from shaming these guys when there is evidence. Maybe they fear damage to their brand as an employer? But hushing up these things causes more damage as the word gets out through informal sources anyhow. By not making an example of such monsters organisations give birth to many such predators.

In an IT consulting firm, a senior vice-president faced very high attrition amongst his executive assistants. When a departing assistant complained about his advances towards her, the organisation confronted him. He resigned. Yet, nobody got to know why he left. The organisation was relieved that he quit on his own. It did not have to go through the embarrassment of explaining his separation to the staff. He joined a large pharma company in a senior role within three months. Thus, the organisation only passed on the problem to another employer.

When I asked for suggestions on how this issue can be dealt with better by organisations, people were quite ambivalent. The complexity of these situations is multi-fold. Organisations believe they can’t act till somebody files a complaint. Mostly, the situations present themselves as “one vs the other”. There is no material evidence as many of these incidents happen outside the office premises.

A CIBIL-like score for these offenders should be brought in as this behaviour does tend to recur. They definitely deserve to be shamed. Senior executives and employees can be educated and trained in what acceptable behaviour is, and what constitutes a transgression. Today I am mulling over corrective action for advances made by people in power!

If power creates this behaviour it’s important to shame the ‘power’ in order for your brand to gain long-term credibility. After all one person’s behaviour, however senior, cannot be larger than your brand!

(The author is a prolific commentator on workplace dynamics. He is now pursuing his entrepreneurial dreams in the talent solutions space.)

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Published on October 25, 2017
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