Business World – 15 Jun 2009 – Business Conduct – The Heart of the Matter

“Ethics and religion must not stay at home when we go to work.”
— Achille Silvestrini, Cardinal of the Roman Curia

-Meera Seth
————————————
Raghuveer Vats felt like a blender on pulse mode. Varsha Nigam Dorai had just left his office after dropping a hateful bombshell, and the flying splinters were tossing him around; that Varsha was also the wife of his senior vice-president, Tyaagi Dorai.

Varsha, whom he had known for many years, had said, “It is Tyaagi. He is never home before midnight and always claims to have meetings with clients and overseas visitors. Ours is a large joint family, I am the eldest and the live-in daughter-in-law. I manage the entire household and run my dance academy, which keeps me busy round-the-clock. Busy also means that I am focusing less on anxieties and worries. Therefore, it has taken me three years to convert worry into suspicion into action. I fear Tyaagi is having an affair…”

And after some more explanation, she said, “It could be a person called Saarangi… Is there someone by that name in your company?”

Raghuveer’s mind registered a vague recognition of the name, but he was badly shaken. Tyaagi? Of all people! Then he had valiantly even defended, “I work very closely with Tyaagi, Varsha, I would know.” But Varsha said, “You stole my line Veer. Those were my words, ‘I should know, I am his wife!’ Nonsense, Veer!”

But Varsha’s words did not make sense. Tyaagi was not just a terrific manager. He was ‘inner circle’ — part of the core strategy team.

Two days later, he asked Tyaagi to join him for dinner at Konkan Café. Without much preamble, Raghuveer came to the point, “I believe you are having an affair with someone at work.” Tyaagi gasped but only briefly. Then he said, “Where did you get that impression?”

Raghuveer, or RV as he was known, took the menu card from the manager, and said, “We will call you as soon as we are ready, ok?” And then to Tyaagi, “You and I are too old to play cat-and-mouse games, Tyaagi. how I know, where I got the impression from… never mind. Let us come to the point. We are men, and we know what we are capable of; interestingly, we are also aware of what we are not capable of, that is honesty in situations like this. This won’t do at Gavinn. I am sorry that after so many years of great team work, we will have to part ways.”

Tyaagi was taken aback. “Part ways?” he asked, not even sure he was hearing right. “But what has that to do with anything? Besides, it is not even an affair in the real sense…” RV was angry now. “‘In the real sense?’ What does that mean? Anyway, look my relationship with you is that of an MD and colleague. So, I have no interest in your personal definitions. I am concerned with the business of Gavinn and that interest directs me to take a view of your conduct.” Tyaagi said, “I am sorry. but listen to me, it is not what you think. I am a married guy. I have kids. I don’t need all this, you know…”

RV said, “There are men who stop lying when they are found out. You are a rare breed. I have had a long chat with Saarangi. Now tell me…”

Tyaagi was shocked, but said, “I am simply friendly with her…” RV could bear it no more. He said, “If you want to talk, it has to be about corrective action, not the details of your relationship. So, either you have to leave Gavinn or I will have to ask you to.”

Tyaagi could not understand, “Why? Why do I have to go? How has my personal life got anything to do with my work? Am I not delivering? And I don’t think it is sufficient ground for terminating my employment! You are making an issue of something quite commonplace; we are consenting adults, so what is the problem?”

“The problem?” said RV. “When a man changes his script on being caught, or pretends none of that happened, such a man is clearly one who lacks conviction. When a person dons two different profiles, one for the day and one for the dark, I would not trust my business in his hands. I do not know which is the real Tyaagi that works for Gavinn!”

Tyaagi breathed deeply. “Alright! Let us not get theatrical!” he said in a low angry tone. “If it bothers you so much, I will tell her to leave Gavinn!”

“On cue, Visaka and Vishesh exchanged a disturbed glance. They were in fact not very far from that situation. Vishesh had sunk a huge amount into the India business.”

That made RV furious. He said, “It is not about who leaves or stays, it is about protecting the integrity of a structure, a system that we all subscribe to. They are as simple as road safety rules. It does get inconvenient now and then, but then it is not about convenience, it is about common and greater good. Nobody forces you to get married, raise a family. But once you do, it is ‘till death do us part’, which incidentally is not a romantic notion but about responsibility. Now, as an organisation, Gavinn is part of that very society with its inconvenient rules. And what is good for the goose is good for Gavinn as well.”

Tyaagi now realised he was talking to a mad man. So he said, “Let me think about this. Let us meet again next week.”

“Not next week Tyaagi. Two days is all I have for you,” said RV as he left the restaurant.

Next morning, HR head Kaushal Santrup walked into RV’s office and shut the door behind him. “Tyaagi has sent us a letter from his lawyer that seems like a preamble to a lawsuit for unfair termination of employment!” Kaushal announced. RV shrugged, “I knew he would. Fools and cowards respond like that.”

Kaushal: We will have to fight it. Tell me your stance so that I can develop my defence.

RV: We are not ‘defending’ anything. He can do that. We have a stance and we are committed to it.

Kaushal: It is also Saarangi; she alleges sexual harassment. She could well be doing this to pre-empt being sacked herself. Whatever her ploy, fact remains that since Tyaagi is in a position of power, and his partner is much junior, it could well be construed that he is misusing his power!”

RV: I am not interested in putting modern day labels on this episode. This is about irresponsible behaviour, which will hold true in any age. And Gavinn will not subscribe to it.

Kaushal: Listen, she is accusing a senior manager. She alleges he brought pressure on her to reciprocate that there was no volition from her side.

RV: Why are you wasting time on this? All this is nonsense. He brought pressure on her’! Look Kaushal, she made the choice to toe his line. She could well have made a different choice and taken the management’s help. Period. We have been very supportive and helpful always and there is not one lady here at Gavinn who can fault us. I am not diminishing Saarangi’s words, but these are two-faced people. And both should go.

Kaushal: And if Saarangi alleges it is sexual harassment, then?

RV: Then she will have to give me a non-helpless explanation for why she did not seek management support. At one level, it is misuse of power by a person in authority and on top of that both are using the law as a fig leaf. It is being assumed that the junior cannot refuse, that she was ‘influenced’. Then the law says, “Oh but if she was ‘influenced’, it is not exactly consent, but a case of harassment!” But who is to prove consent or not? Then what happens? Then the case will weigh down on the male partner heavily. Therefore, this sexual harassment is after all, nonsense. I am not even considering it.

Kaushal: Maybe we need to issue a caveat to employees on workplace liaisons…

RV: You interpret me hastily, Kaushal. This is about married people straying. He is guilty of decimating the home responsibility, and she for encroaching on what does not accrue to her. As an organisation we have to subscribe to the social framework. If as an organisation I can request consumers to deface and destroy mineral water bottles to prevent reuse, not buy pirated CDs, recycle paper, not use plastics, to enable our market environment, then can they not reciprocally ask organisations to save the moral environment? Tyaagi will have to go.

Kaushal: Maybe we must slow down. We have just yesterday received the clearance for the plant in Ahmednagar. Tyaagi has been negotiating with the government. Could we not soft pedal till that gets done?

RV (surprised): Kaushal, I am a leader, not a fixer or broker. If this deal gets sticky, so be it. But endorsing betrayal, valueless conduct, irresponsibility? Never. The home/family is an operating unit to be accorded the same respect. If the head of the home business unit cannot lead well and enable his profit centre, how am I to believe he can work for the benefit of his organisation’s business unit? It is easily extrapolated!

Kaushal: Given the times, such severity may be extreme…

RV: Tyaagi is not some management trainee. It is clearly the wrong example for a senior member of an organisation to set. Importantly, Gavinn has to always be an organisation where women feel safe. The MD’s vision has to be clear on this.

Kaushal: We could look at how others handled this: Teffer transferred its senior director out of the country to get him off a scandal he got into.

RV: What Teffer does is Teffer’s choice. What Gavinn does will be driven by our values. We must never run organisations to ‘look’ good. Covering up, pushing under the carpet, calling in PR… these are ego-driven exercises, born out of faith in falsehoods. I will manage my business and the careers of my managers. But they have to come with values. If their values break, they must go to ‘Start’. Life is not all ladders…

Kaushal: Times have changed, RV. There’s growing evidence that morals are on the low in organisations, and naturally management is either unsure or unwilling to take a stance.

RV: I am neither unsure nor unwilling. Besides, it is the very nature of time to change as it is of water to be wet. Hardly reason to recalibrate values! But some things should not change, the basic edifice on which we build homes should never change. If it does, orgnisations won’t have a foundation for survival. Now I need to work … Don’t forget our 4 pm meeting.

There it ended for the time being. but outside the sound-proofed walls of Raghuveer Vats’ office, the buzz of discussions was mounting. How news travels or leaks, is difficult to flowchart. “Why is RV being adamant?” “Seriously! What anyone does with his personal life should be nobody’s business.” “Seems very harsh a step. Why sack the guy? RV must be deranged…” “What a severe man!” “Tyaagi is dead. Indian law on sexual harassment will nail him any which way.”

Kaushal met Teerath Jain, his next in command, to discuss the letter from Tyaagi’s lawyer, which was a sort of pre-emptive legal opinion that clarified his rights and obligations.

Kaushal: India’s sexual harassment law rests on ‘absence of consent’. Only then is it construed to be. Other countries’ laws go further, where if someone is in a position of authority, then any sexual relationship is harassment. But RV does not even want to hear about it. He says, “Values don’t need the sanctity of law. What is wrong is wrong. Period.”

Teerath: He has a point, but unfortunately when you are dealing with contractual employment, you have to work through the law. I can hardly see myself saying with conviction: ‘Tyaagi, you have to go, because I think what you did is inappropriate.’

Lunch tables at Gavinn saw more huddled heads. “Say, is this code of conduct usually documented?” “Yes, it is supposed to be annexed to your contract. Many MNCs do this.” “But listen, if he is wants to file a suit, on what possible basis can he do so?” “Company will allege it tantamounts to harassment, while he will resort to the flimsy Indian definition and claim it was consensual. Finished. He wins.” “Absolutely, he will simply say that company cannot police personal life! Then what can we do?” “RV will put his tough foot down, and chant his pet mantra about unwritten commitment to the code of common conduct, which include the adherance to social norms. Simple. I can even hear him chant now…” “RV is a clear-headed guy… Tyaagi has no hope in hell. Legally, he may wrangle victory, but in the press he will look like a fool.”

Elsewhere, Teerath was in discussion with Kaushal and RV, “The Indian law is set out in a case called Vishaka versus State of Rajasthan, where the court set out guidelines to be adopted at all workplaces. There is no mention of ‘consensual sexual relationships’. That implies, in India, consensual sexual relationships between adults is not illegal. However, I say an Indian company can and should go further and prohibit this when people are in authority, as is Tyaagi. And I do think RV you are on solid ground. You are a man for policy, plus you have terrific conviction. Besides, we must push for a change because the Indian law only sets out a minimum standard, which is not only outdated but also dreadfully nebulous. It is essential to have a more rigorous definition of sexual harassment in workplaces and this prevents subtler forms of gender discrimination.”

Raghuveer heard him out keenly, while Kaushal added: “Look at the kind of domestic situations that arise daily. Right here at Gavinn. young trainees have married and divorced in eight months. Alcoholism, abusive conduct, domestic violence, and now extra-marital affairs. These kinds of moral delinquencies are present to some degree in many homes.
Where will you draw the line? And how many will you get to know about? Can we ask all these men and women to quit?

“Why only men? The husband of one of our brand managers has complained that she has too many late night meetings and parties and their home life is derailing. Do I take that as an official complaint against her professional self or against her personal self? If Tyaagi’s case counts, then this one too does, no? You think a man is setting a bad example having an affair. But you don’t think the lady manager is setting a bad example neglecting her home? And then what do I tell her boss Vijay Cherian who asked me, ‘If she fails to meet her objectives, can I call her husband and report? No? Then why is he calling us?’ So, where will you draw the line RV?’

RV: Interesting arguments; but the case of Tyaagi is clear as day. The issue gets bad when one of them is already married, and break social convention. I have asked you this several times: Is an organisation not responsible for society’s values being maintained? For the upkeep of a moral standard in society? After all, an organisation is part of that very society. Isn’t that why we restrict cigarette and liquor companies from advertising? People will protest — it is in the nature of people to resist hindrance. But finally who is the watchdog? Organisations have to draw the line and make known these lines.”

Kaushal: Pardon me if I come across as argumentative RV. if Tyaagi was having an affair with a lady outside Gavinn, would you have even known? There is also the view that society itself has changed its stance on such things as extra-marital affairs. It is rampant, so how much can an organisation do? I think a point can be made to the employee that we are disturbed by his conduct. Then it is for the errant manager to take a call. He will then know the viewpoint of his management, and he cannot get abrasive at least, if he expects his career to move upwards.

Or if it was interfering with work… Then there is a case for action. I keep wondering, where do we draw the line?

RV: Why does everything have to have lines and boundaries and definitions? What ever happened to common sense? Why can we not have black and white, yes or not-yes, can or cannot? These grey zones are really nothing, but our own confused sense of democracy.

I agree, the organisation cannot go about sleuthing. But here I am, employing 20 hours of a man’s day to run my business. Does it not become Gavinn’s responsibility? When I hire a man, I hire his whole family’s support. That is how I see life. Maybe your vision is different, so I cannot even tell you you are wrong. You tell me how do I shut this window that shows me a different perspective from yours?

Organisation that have a passion for being value-driven will know right from wrong. And I say this, even if his performance is good, work unaffected, top drawer deliveries; but when his subordinates know he is married, and is having an extra-marital affair, is this good or not good for the value edifice that the organisation stands on? Is it not affecting the fabric with which we weave our businesses everyday? Does he not compromise his seniority and authority?”

Kaushal, then asked softly, “Yet, would you have saved the marriage by sacking him, RV?”

RV replied, “I am not saving any marriage. I am trying to save the values that are being assaulted by his behaviour. Values is the air I spray abundantly in my workplace for people to inhale. He is polluting it with an attitude that I see as unwholesome. That is all.”

Kaushal was satisfied, “Fair, but allow me to suggest a framework for this: Follow full process; set up a sexual harassment committee; give everyone concerned a right to be heard; and then terminate with reasons. You will be well within your rights then to say, “Gavinn strongly believes in social norms. Our code of conduct derives from society and breach of social convention is breach of organisational code of conduct.”

Raghuveer stood up and shook Kaushal’s hand, “Fair!” And then, “But remember, this is not about sexual harassment, but dishonest indulgence. That is really my point!”

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