The Indian Express
The real Phaneesh Murthy scandal
Saritha Rai : Mon Jun 03 2013, 00:27 hrs
Indian IT companies, though modern and meritocratic, are still too forgiving of sexual harassment
The many attention-grabbing details of Phaneesh Murthy's biography make his IIT-Chennai and IIM-Ahmedabad credentials look pallid. Back-to-back exits from large IT services companies (Infosys, iGATE) within the span of just over a decade. First CEO in India to be sacked on charges of sexual misdemeanour. First Indian CEO to attract multiple multi-million dollar sexual harassment lawsuits.
Reports say that Phaneesh Murthy, recently sacked CEO of outsourcing firm iGATE, has done it for the third time. In three separate instances, his colleagues accused Murthy of sexual harassment. In all incidents, the accusers were Murthy's American colleagues. In a near three-decade career mostly in India, Murthy did not face a single charge of sexual transgression in his home country.
It took a culture less lenient of sexual wrongdoing at the workplace to out Murthy. That harassment is ubiquitous in corporate India is undeniable, even though statistics do not reveal its extent. In every sector of corporate India, there is the dreaded Dishonour Roll, a secret list of top executives that female colleagues pass around, using labels such as "lech" and "creepy". Their victims are often dissuaded from making complaints. Those who do are made to feel like wrongdoers themselves, and are either hounded out or exit the organisations.
It is significant that Murthy's repeated transgressions transpired in the IT industry. IT companies are acknowledged to have some of the most equitable workplaces. They pride themselves on their meritocracy and strive towards workplace diversity. But even in an industry where women are growing in number and on the ascendant, the environment is not conducive to reporting sexual harassment.
It is noteworthy that iGATE, which hired Murthy despite his track record, sacked him on the grounds that he did not disclose a relationship with a subordinate, as required by company policy. In the same statement, the company said it had investigated and found no merit in the sexual harassment complaint against Murthy.
India's Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, is comprehensive. But many companies prefer to take a benign view of workplace harassment, sending out signals that those in power may not tolerate bad job performances, but will put up with such deviant behaviour.
The sexual harassment guidelines need to be stringently followed, says Dileep Ranjekar, currently CEO of the Azim Premji Foundation. "Workplace culture needs to change, organisations have to inculcate in their managers a willingness to deal with 'small-looking' incidents of sexual harassment reported to them."
The foundation has done what most companies balk at. Its website reveals that three sexual harassment cases were reported and acted upon at its university campus, that the action-taken reports were sent to the UGC. The foundation's sexual harassment prevention policy is comprehensive, and the fledgling university mandatorily conducts orientation sessions on the subject for each batch of students.
The zero tolerance policy of a foundation whose roots are in the outsourcing industry could set an example for IT particularly and for the rest of corporate India. The Phaneesh Murthy incident should be the trigger for the IT industry to recognise workplace sexual harassment as a serious issue, said Anand Sudarshan, an early IT industry professional who currently runs a VC firm, Sylvant Advisors. "Corporate governance and corporate social responsibility are great, but companies should add gender sensitisation to their list of priorities," Sudarshan said. "By creating workplaces where gender issues are treated with sensitivity, caring and sympathy, the industry has a wonderful opportunity to be an exemplar for the rest of corporate India," said Ranjekar.
Sudarshan proposed that HR heads of IT companies get together to form a gender sensitisation task force. Companies could sign an implementable anti-sexual harassment policy that could lay down a code of conduct for their employees, he said. The names of violators and victims need to be guarded for privacy reasons but companies should publicise the other details of implementation. "After all, there is much more to openness and integrity than what you disclose in your quarterly results," Sudarshan said.