The many affairs of Phaneesh Murthy

The case demonstrates that most men,especially those in positions of power,believe office indiscretions are no big deal

Written by Gayatri Rangachari Shah | Published: May 31, 2013 3:48 am

The case demonstrates that most men,especially those in positions of power,believe office indiscretions are no big deal

Some boys just can’t keep their pants up. Phaneesh Murthy,the now deposed CEO of iGate,is the most recent example of how office relationships can implode in your face. Forty years after sexual harassment in the workplace first introduced itself to our lexicon,the Murthy affair reflects a sad and cautionary tale. For although in India and across many parts of the world sexual harassment is recognised as a workplace hazard for which there should be zero tolerance,the fact is,just like gender and colour discrimination,it continues to exist.

Surely,for those of us who can remember the landmark,televised hearing of lawyer Anita Hill against then US Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas in 1991,it would appear that men (and let’s face it,it is almost always men) had learned a thing or two about office peccadilloes. I was in college in the US when the confirmation hearings happened and I still recall the squirmy,embarrassing details that were aired publicly. Young and foolish as I was,I presumed Thomas was done for,but here he is,more than two decades later,upholding the conservative side of the bench. As for his accuser,most folks would say,“Anita who?”

It turns out that Murthy is a repeat offender,having had to leave Infosys over similar accusations. Both victims settled out of court,but it begs the question: what were the folks involved in the iGate CEO search committee thinking when they appointed him? This case once again demonstrates that most men,especially those in positions of power,tend to believe that office indiscretions are no big deal.

For those who think that the conduct of high flyers such as Murthy,or indeed that of David Davidar,the former head of Penguin Canada against whom allegations of sexual harassment surfaced in 2010 (since settled out of court) are an aberration,here are some facts. According to an article in The Wall Street Journal,a 2010 survey by New Delhi-based non-profit,the Centre for Transforming India,found that 88 per cent of women employees in the IT and outsourcing sector had faced some sexual harassment in the workplace.

Women make up 40 per cent of the workforce in India,according to a report by consulting firm Bain — a figure that is bound to increase as social norms continue to evolve. And while the signing of the sexual harassment bill this April is a milestone,women’s rights activists are correct in criticising the law’s peculiar victim redressal process. A victim harassed in the workplace has to bring her complaint to an internal company committee (to be headed by a woman),which will initially try to mediate a resolution. Barring that,and if the accusation finds muster,the committee will decide on a fine. That’s akin to a slap on the wrist. Zero tolerance should mean precisely that. If a complaint finds merit,shouldn’t the accused be told,in words made famous by Donald Trump: “You’re fired?”

Rina Mukherji recently won a 10-year legal battle against her former employer,The Statesman,for sexual harassment. In a first person online account,she pointed out that one of the biggest hurdles facing victims of harassment is that “no lawyer is willing to take up the case. They are apprehensive about losing the case,since they lack experience in such matters.” Mukherji also took exception to the idea of internal company committees being set up to probe cases,because of a clear conflict of interest. It’s hard enough to come forward with such complaints,as they are hard to prove,could cost you your job and often make victims the object of scrutiny and ridicule. This is true everywhere,but especially so in a conservative society such as ours. Just look at how rape victims are treated. In an office environment,how do you maintain confidentiality if an internal committee is investigating complaints? How do you ensure there are no biases against the victim or,for that matter,the accused?

As has been reported,most large companies in India,whether multinational or homegrown,have some policies in place against sexual harassment. Now,with the new law having been passed,they will likely start training programs for new recruits and refresher ones for mid- and senior-level executives. My former employers,including a large global bank and a global management consultancy,made new hires go through at least a two hour session at least once every 18 months on how to identify workplace harassment and what to do if it were to happen. As a young employee,I couldn’t wait to get out of those “training” sessions,which featured badly acted out videos in which actors roleplayed different situations. It’s a reaction many of us would have,that “this will never happen to me”,so we don’t take it too seriously. But it’s time we did.

The writer is a Mumbai-based journalist

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