Hostile Workplace

For women who were in show biz the pressures were strange.  While on the one hand they had to constantly appear attractive and sexy, on the other those very looks and the often seductive actions they made sent out the wrong signals. Women who worked in certain environments had to “adjust” a little bit more to stay employed.  A bar girl or a club dancer, for instance, could obviously not expect the same standard of sexually correct behaviour from her colleagues as a woman engineer could. But was she not entitled to get the same kind of protection from unwanted or unsolicited attention?

According to the law, a hostile environment is created by sexual harassment at the workplace when an employee is exposed to unwanted advances from colleagues or superiors.  India got her first comprehensive judgement on sexual harassment at the work place in 1997 just two days before her fiftieth independence day.  Until then women who had suffered this sort of humiliation had limited options: they could either continue to put up with it because they needed their jobs or quit because they could not bear the harassment any longer. It had taken five long years for the Supreme Court to come out with this historic judgement, but the wait was well worth it.  All the women who had suffered the ignominy of sexual harassment at the hand of their bosses and colleagues could now actually come out in the open and ask for relief.

Interestingly, the litigation, known as the Vishaka case, resulted from a brutal gang rape of a social worker in a village in Rajasthan.  The social worker had in the course of her duties tried to prevent a child marriage from taking place in the house of a powerful landlord. The rape was inflicted on her as a punishment by the landlord and his men. The social activists and NGOs who were the petitioners argued that it was the duty of the employer (in this case the Government of Rajasthan) to ensure the woman’s safety in her workplace.  Under Article 32 of the Constitution, an action was filed seeking the enforcement of the fundamental rights relating to women in the work place. These included the right to equality and non-discrimination, the right to practice one’s profession and the right to life.

As per the Supreme Court guidelines any unwelcome sexually determined behavior, direct or by implication was construed as sexual harassment and it was punishable by law.  It brought under its ambit physical contact and advances, a demand or request for sexual favours, sexually coloured remarks, showing pornography and any other unwelcome physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of a sexual nature. Since acts of sexual harassment could be humiliating and create a hostile work environment they could constitute a health and safety problem for women.  Therefore it was the responsibility of the employer to make sure its women employees were not subjected to such harassment.

The Supreme Court also said that these guidelines were legally binding and enforceable until necessary legislation was passed.   It brought under its purview, all government and private sector organizations, hospitals and universities as well as the unorganized sector. It also put into a place a mechanism to deal with the issue.  All offices were mandated to have a committee to look into complaints and take suitable action. Working women always knew what sexual harassment meant.   But the definition had to be made official by the Supreme Court before it became both socially and legally acceptable that such harassment was indeed an offence.   Also the court’s clear definition helped women to recognize the problem.  Sexual innuendo and sexist language are so ingrained into our systems that often women do not even realize that they are being harassed.

Despite this empowering law, however, women still hesitated to complain to the committees set up for this purpose.  As a woman lawyer told me, “More often than not, the boss is also the harasser. So to whom does she complain?  And who is more dispensable: the harassed woman or her boss?  It’s quite tricky.”  In the more streamlined corporate world, sexual harassment in the workplace was a recognized offence.  There was a mechanism in place to tackle it and in some rare cases women who complained against their harassers did manage to get redressed.

Between 2002 and 2004, two high profile cases of sexual harassment against Phaneesh Murthy, a Director of the Indian software giant Infosys, grabbed the national headlines time and time again.  And strangely enough, although he ended up paying millions of dollars in out of court settlements, the cases did not affect his career growth in any way. Four years later, in 2008, Phaneesh Murthy was the CEO of the prestigious iGate Global Solutions.  His much discussed past seemed to be firmly behind him. It all began in 2000 when Phaneesh Murthy was the highest paid Infosys executive with an annual take-home pay of $400,000. He lived in California and was well respected for his business and technical acumen.  He was popularly known as the 'Other Murthy' and was instrumental in building Infosys into a global IT company.

In July 2002 Reka Maximovitch his former executive assistant filed a sexual harassment suit against him.  The first reaction of the IT fraternity was shock.  How could a poster boy of the industry get embroiled in such a case? Phaneesh resigned from Infosys, saying he was being victimized and needed time to fight to clear his name.  By October 2002, however, he had gone in for an out-of-court settlement by which he ended up paying 3 million dollars to Reka. According to some publications, he claimed he was arm twisted into going in for the settlement.  Infosys, they implied, wanted to bring the case to an end and was withholding his shares until he agreed to their terms.  He obviously had a lot at stake as he was a major share holder. Finally, the settlement money was paid by the company and its insurer.  The insurer also paid the huge legal fees Infosys incurred to fight the case.

But at the end of it, some questions remained hanging in the air.  Did Reka and Phaneesh have a consensual relationship which went sour?  Did Phaneesh threaten her and her boyfriend when she refused to resume the relationship?  Or was he harassing her right through her tenure at Infosys?  If indeed he was innocent as he claimed, why did he battle his former company instead of enlisting its help? Phaneesh Murthy moved on.  He became CEO of iGate Global Solutions.   Barely three months later, one more case exploded in his face.  This time it was filed by Jennifer Griffith another former employee of Infosys.

The lawsuit, filed in 2003 in a Californian court, said that Ms Griffith was given a low performance rating by Phaneesh Murthy after she refused to get sexually intimate with him. Ms Griffith had worked under Phaneesh for just a month. At this point of time, Phaneesh Murthy, told Times of India ( 5 October 2003 ) through a conference call from Fremont , California : "I am appalled and completely outraged by this. This is complete garbage. I will fight the hell out of this case."  He also said that Griffith , a US national, and her lawyers were out to make money from this case and that the same legal counselors who fought for Reka Maximovitch earlier were involved.

His new employer stood by him.  Murthy said that his family knew about it from the beginning and “the collective commitment was in favour of fighting it out.” In a telephonic interview to Financial Express, he said, “I want to fight the hell out of this (the current case). If I do not fight this case, I will be vulnerable to anyone who wants to take a pot shot at me in future”. But on 4 November 2004, Hindu Business Line reported rather tersely,  “Infosys Technologies said on Wednesday that its former director and global sales head, Mr Phaneesh Murthy, has recently settled the sexual harassment lawsuit filed against him by former employee, Ms Jennifer Griffith, for $8,00,000 (approximately Rs 3.6 crore).” Phaneesh Murthy also issued a Press statement.  He said, “This has been a very difficult decision for me, a clash of my personal beliefs and the responsibilities of running a large public company, and the implications of a CEO taking time off to fight a lawsuit. This is to ensure that this chapter is behind us, and in no way distracts from my current responsibilities at iGate.”

Half the amount payable to Jennifer Griffith was paid by Phaneesh Murthy.  The remaining amount was paid by the Infosys insurer.  Infosys did not contribute any money to the settlement this time and was not a signatory to the settlement agreement. The company learnt from its insurers’ counsel that the settlement released Infosys from all claims and liabilities alleged in the lawsuit.  With that Infosys washed its hands completely off the man who was once its golden-haired, blue-eyed boy.

Of course sexual harassment cases usually don’t end this way.  Reka and Jennifer lucked out.  There were big business interests at stake and the companies wanted closure.  Probably the fact that they lived in California where the law was strict also helped. Meanwhile, in 2003 one more alleged sexual harassment case was closed with an enormous out of court settlement.  This time the scene unfolded right here in India .  This time too, the company involved opted for quick closure with an out of court settlement because its image was at stake.

In July 2003, former Miss World Sushmita Sen was paid Rs.1.45 crores to silence her allegations of sexual harassment leveled against Coca Cola’s marketing head.  Sushmita had been roped in the previous year for a large undisclosed sum to endorse Coke’s largest brand, Thums Up.  She however refused to comment on media reports about her dispute with Coca-Cola and the harassment charges she had allegedly made soon after Coca-Cola terminated its celebrity engagement contract with her. India Business World summed up the case in its issue dated December 2003.  According to this publication, the sexual harassment charge was made by Sushmita in a legal notice where she alleged her contract was terminated because she had rejected the sexual overtures of a senior Coke official.  Her solicitors in a seven-page letter addressed to Coke's worldwide chairman said that the agreement had been terminated "to punish Ms Sen who rightly resisted sexual harassment by one of your employees based in the Mumbai office of Coca-Cola Company".

Although Coke denied the charges of sexual harassment, obviously the charges were serious enough for the company’s top management to fly down from Atlanta in the US to have talks with Sushmita.  Sushmita collected her out of court settlement and remained tight-lipped ever after. But, I generally found that women who were at the receiving end of sexual harassment were scared, worried and just wanting out.  In India particularly there were very few women who went to the extent of suing a harasser.  Most women were hesitant to complain to their colleagues or superiors or even to the committees set up to look into these issues. Most often they were dissuaded by their own families. For an independent working woman like Sushmita Sen, there was no grievance committee to appeal to.  And, it is interesting to note here that neither Reka nor Jennifer appealed to the sexual harassment grievances committee set up by Infosys.  They went directly to the lawyers.

I was thinking of this a couple of days later when I sat talking to an attractive young woman engineer about her troubled relationship with her manager.  Unlike the Phaneesh Murthy or Sushmita Sen cases, there were no celebrities involved here. It was another day, another office and another multi-national company in Bangalore .  We sat talking in the coffee shop, oblivious to the chatter of the dozens of other young women like her who thronged around us.  “I too was bold and carefree like them once,” Anita said.  “Maybe that’s what got me into this problem.”

It had all started when thirty five year old manager started commenting every day on how attractive she was.  He would notice her hair, her dress and even her lipstick. That was two years ago.  She was twenty two and a fresher then.  She had worked briefly for a small software company before she got this job and was overjoyed with her beautiful office surroundings and the fact that she was put on a project which might take her to Europe .

Anita was a friendly girl who knew she was attractive.  She was used to handling passes made at her.  Even then, she was a bit uneasy at first with her manager’s remarks. She became a bit more comfortable after he introduced her to his wife who worked in another software company close by. As weeks passed by his remarks began to get sexual overtones.  These remarks were always made only when they were out of other people’s earshot. Anita’s unease increased but her manager always managed to make it into a joke and ask her to “take it sportingly”.  Soon her place was shifted to a spot where he could see her all the time.  By this time she was almost six months into the project and a group of engineers had to be sent on-site.  This was when her manager made his first real move.  He explicitly asked her for a sexual favor in return for getting picked to go on this trip.  Since she wanted desperately to go, she tried to negotiate.  She agreed to have dinner with him and vaguely held out a promise of more after her return.  She was sent on the project.

Anita came from a middle class family.  She was a city girl… street smart and ambitious.  At that point of time, she also had a boyfriend but she didn’t tell him about her manager’s overtures. While she was on site, her manager made it a point to call her a couple of times and he even managed to make a visit.  He insistently took her out to dinner and reminded her of her promise.  She tried telling him about her boyfriend, but he just brushed it aside saying he need not know.  Even before she returned, he called to tell her that he had recommended her promotion to the next grade, over and above some of her colleagues who were perhaps more deserving.

On her return, Anita was in a fix. It was pay back time and she did not know what to do.  She was finding it tougher and tougher to put off her manager.  She thought of resigning her job, but she would then only be harming herself. Anyway, she applied for a job in another company.  Her manager got furious when he heard of it.  He would tarnish her reputation, he said, and she would never be able to work in the industry again.  He started sending her crude sms messages.

Although Anita was technically good at her work, she was given very trivial jobs to do.  However, these jobs entailed her staying late at work.  This meant she often had to stay alone in the cubicle with her tormentor who subjected her to all sorts of verbal abuse.  Finally, unable to bear it any longer, Anita confided in a woman colleague who had suspected all along that there was something going on. Through this colleague, she came to talk to me and requested me specifically to include her story in my book.  She hoped that other young women put in similar positions would learn from her experience. Anita now told me she had two choices before her.  She could complain to the committee on sexual harassment and go through a long process of interrogation.  Since her suave and affable manager was very popular with his colleagues, she would also have to face their disbelief and anger.  She also knew that as far as the company was concerned she was far more dispensable than he was.  Also the fact remained that she had just stopped short of having a relationship with him.  So it became her word against his.

Her other option was to accept the job offer she had got from a company abroad.  This would mean she would have to leave behind her swanky office and job which she had grown to love, her family and her boyfriend.  Was she to blame for what happened to her?  Perhaps.  If she had nipped it in the bud, perhaps her manager’s overtures would have stopped.  And perhaps she would not have gone to Europe .  She certainly would not have got her out of turn promotions.  She had played with fire and got burnt.

In August 2007, Shailaja Praveen, a 24 year old team leader in the retail and corporate section of ING Vysya Financial Services, committed suicide.  Just one week before that, Shailaja had asked the State Women’s Commission to help her as she said she was being sexually harassed by the regional manager of the bank. The trouble started when Shailaja who was in the process of getting a divorce from her husband of four years started getting obscene text messages from the regional manager.  He also apparently started inviting her out to parties.  Alarmed and upset by this she complained to several people including her colleagues, her family and friends.  Instead of taking her complaint seriously, a HR department head apparently asked her to quit her job and offered to find another one for her.

The Bank for which Shylaja worked had a redressal committee in place.  Probably Shylaja was hesitant to file a formal complaint.  Was it because she had already been snubbed by her colleagues?  Was it because they didn’t really believe her?  Or, as Anita had said was it because in the larger scheme of things Shylaja was more dispensable than the regional manager of her bank? Reka, Jennifer, Anita, Shylaja…similar stories, but totally different conclusions.  The problem was that sexual harassment was a closed door offence.  No one except the harasser and his victim knew the exact truth.