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Office Affairs

In India, it stays hushed


FATAL ATTRACTION: Murthy's last harassment lawsuit cost Infosys $3 million. Roiz (below in black) is currently on medical leave

There are affairs aplenty in India Inc, consensual and otherwise, but fear of exposure and loss of 'reputation' keep the harassed quiet.

Phaneesh Murthy is no stranger to sexual conflicts. This is the third time he has been found with his pants down, figuratively speaking. His latest indiscretion saw him being sacked as iGate CEO and is now facing sexual harassment charges. He pursued Araceli Roiz, iGate's investor relations head, and according to her, also demanded that she get an abortion when she became pregnant.

The previous cases, which happened during his glory days at Infosys, were settled out of court in the US with the women getting hefty sums - $3 million for his then-secretary Reka Maximovitch and $800, 000 for Jennifer Griffith. Roiz's charges will also be heard in the US and huge sums of monies are likely to be involved, given that Roiz is pregnant.

Would Murthy have gotten away with his behaviour in India? While it's difficult to hazard a definite reply, the answer is likely to be affirmative given that there's no history of a high-profile CEO being convicted for sexual harassment in the country. Does that mean that India Inc has no affairs or that there are no cases of inappropriate behaviour between seniors and subordinates? Of course not. Then how come employees do not go public with cases of sexual harassment in India? Cultural and social mores are the culprit, say human resource experts.

In India, plenty of women face sexual harassment in various forms at the workplace, but the matter often gets swept under the rug. HR consultants claim that over 50 per cent cases of sexual harassment at workplaces in India go unreported and don't even make it to the HR managers of the company.

"In India our cultural and societal norms have a huge impact when such instances come to light, " says Priya Chetty-Rajagopal, vice-president and partner at executive search firm Stanton Chase International. She adds that unlike in the West, in India we try to sort out an issue rather than address it head on.

India's $108 billion IT-ITeS industry, a sector that gave Murthy his rockstar reputation, accounts for the highest percentage of women employees at 40 per cent as compared to other industries. Fundamentally, the workings of the industry require a lot of travel, and there does come a point where men and women are out of their homes for months in a foreign land. Proximity often leads to liaisons - mainly consensual, but not always - when lines between work and play get blurred.

"The nagging questions in the minds of women are 'What happens if I speak out? Will I be singled out?'" says Sangeeta Lala, senior vice-president at TeamLease Services, a Bangalore-based HR consultancy company. She adds that there is little awareness among women about what constitutes sexual harassment at the workplace.

Family pressure to maintain a "clean image" - and thus stand a better chance in the matrimonial market - also stops women from raising an alarm when they are sexually harassed. "Even if a woman endures some form of sexual harassment at the workplace, if she talks about it in public, it is perceived negatively by most middle-class families, " says a senior HR consultant in Bangalore.

Sunil Goel, MD of executive search firm Globalhunt India, says "Women fear retaliation and don't want to put their reputation on the line. " He says that since women are grossly underrepresented at the top, there is very little room for them to even consider going public with a claim, leave alone filing a lawsuit.

HR consultants are of the opinion that there is a funnel-like pattern in the way women in India deal with sexual harassment cases at their workplace. At the top of the funnel, constituting a large percentage of women, sexual harassments cases are dealt with on a personal level, with perhaps just a few close friends in the loop of things.

Going further down the funnel, there's a segment of women who build-up the strength and courage to fight harassment. Women who can't take the immense psychological pressure of the battle reach out to various support groups in the company or outside. Very few women actually go the distance and report cases but get cowed down by questions like: "Are you OK with it because more details are going to come out about you as well?"

"Companies have to work towards building an un-gendered workplace and a stress-free environment, " says Chetty-Rajagopal.

India's IT capital, Bangalore, has reported startling statistics on sexual harassment cases in the IT-ITeS and biotech sectors, with over 700 complaints 'unofficially' registered with the Karnataka labour department last year. Sources in the labour department say they have scratched only the surface. "In most cases, women have been subjected to punishment transfers for rejecting sexual advances of male colleagues or superiors, " says a senior official at the state labour department.

Given the number of women in the sector, Nasscom says that it is creating awareness about workplace sexual harassment through workshops and seminars.

Reader's opinion (3)

Anirudh DhodapkarMay 30th, 2013 at 15:04 PM

How can Women act Victims in such cases after carrying the pregnancy,this means,when arrangement was in stress and expectation not met ,she cried.Exploitation,Exploitation,Exploitation..abuse,abuse,abuse..
If matter is not reported in very first instance,women can not be declared innocent victims ..

Ganesh Babu N RMay 26th, 2013 at 00:19 AM

May be, in India, extortion by women, happens in private.

Anirudh DhodapkarMay 30th, 2013 at 14:15 PM

very right to same extent

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