Shreya Ukil’s case against Wipro has again triggered a discussion on why IT firms don’t do more to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace.  I worked in Wipro from 2005 to 2010 (yes, I did know the individuals involved) and in the IT industry from 1998 so I thought I’d share my perspectives on why these things still take place.

According to a study of annual reports of 46 Nifty companies by the Economic Times in September 2015, almost 38 out of 50 Nifty companies have 415 sexual harassment cases against them.  The leaders of the IT industry have tried to plug the various loopholes that lead to these incidents.  Partly through education, partly through putting in place processes. It’s not just the right thing to do, it’s good for business – clients want to work with ‘nice’ companies that treat their employees fairly.  The high number reported could be a better understanding of what’s wrong and having a process to address it safely.  (It would help to know what happened after these cases were filed  – how many led to termination etc.)

One reason sexual harassment still happens is an ignorance of employee rights and also the processes.  For example, you should not have a relationship with anyone in your reporting chain. (Regardless of where you work, this is a bad idea.) If you do, you are expected to inform HR.  This is to ensure that it is genuinely consensual.  In most organisations with this policy, having an affair without informing HR is cause for termination.  If either partner feels awkward about sending that email it’s a good sign that the relationship isn’t as strong as you think. The majority of these relationships are in good faith and lead to marriage but it is precisely to prevent the rare cases that are either cream-pot love or predatory that this policy exists.  It protects the reportee from harassment and the senior party from allegations – if the relationship sours – that the reportee was coerced into the relationship.

Secondly, where there is power there is an opportunity for abuse of power.  Now you may wonder what ‘power’ bosses have in these highly process-oriented organisations.  The majority of benefits e.g. promotions, pay-hikes, project allocations are controlled by a tight process with a digital trail and multiple review mechanisms.  But in the IT industry there are some really plum benefits e.g. overseas transfers, stay extensions, departmental transfers (say from support functions to sales or delivery) that are discretionary.  There are people for whom a posting in US or UK, getting a green card or permanent residency is a big deal. So much so that there are requests for letters that the employee may be sent abroad at a future date which can be shared with prospective in-laws to boost marriage prospects.  Or pleas that the employee has to relocate for the birth of the second child as the first one is American and it would be unfair to the unborn child to saddle it with a different (read Indian) citizenship.  Transfer to certain departments can significantly boost your potential to earn – support function teams like marketing and HR do not make the kind of money that a salesperson or consultant does, even though they may have the same qualifications.

While certainly there are processes to deal with these requests, they aren’t approved very often as exceptions are rare.  They depend upon not just the requester but also upon someone in the destination country/team/function championing your cause – why you are so special that this exception must be made.  And that’s where the discretion comes in.  The person with these in their gift becomes a powerful person to you.

So if firms are serious about preventing this kind of abuse of power, they’ll need to relook at the processes for these kind of benefits and make them as transparent as the others.

While sexual abuse is the most serious outcome of this situation, many people live under chronic harassment.  It takes the form of petty abuse – fetch the boss’ laundry, pick up the kids from school,  do the crack-of-dawn airport runs, be available for meetings way past working hours.  This may not sound so serious but it breeds an unprofessional culture and is a symptom that there is potential for abuse that could worsen.

IT firms, as pioneers of the ‘global delivery model’ also suffer from the out-of-sight-out-of-mind syndrome.  Overseas locations tend to be much smaller than the corporate HQ and in the interests of assimilating ‘local’ culture are allowed much more leeway in how they operate and what is permissible.

So what can you as an employee do?

  1. Ask to see the relevant policies or look them up on your company intranet.  If you don’t have them, lobby HR to get them in place.
  2. If you feel a process has been violated, escalate as high as you can.  If the organization isn’t listening, try the Board.  If that fails, get a lawyer.
  3. Follow the policies

What can HR do?

  1. Educate people on what’s ok and what’s not.
  2. Write policies that are easy to follow – and are enforced every time with no exceptions.  For example if a couple in a reporting relationship did not inform the organization of their dating but eventually get married it is still a process violation and should lead to termination, regardless of bad press.
  3. Ensure that every professional benefit is awarded with due process and is not discretionary
  4. Have an easily accessible whistle-blower process
  5. Keep oversight levels uniform across satellite offices
  6. Pay attention to signs of chronic harassment – those who abuse power for one thing can grow to abuse it for another, if unchecked
  7. Recognize unprofessional requests as a problem – educate employees that they can say no.

What can organisations do?

  1. Be compliant with all the government rules
  2. Conduct internal inquiries regularly and be transparent about the outcomes
  3. Put processes to remove discretion from anything that can be considered a benefit
  4. Enforce digital audit trails and reviews for all ‘exceptions’

I usually stick to marketing.  But this is a topic that I think every senior executive must get engaged in.  It’s part of building a business culture that we can be proud of.

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