With a certain measure of trepidation, Mala entered the cubicle that she was going to share with Aasman, a manager who was senior to her by 3 years. Mahindra, the HR manager, who had accompanied her, made the introductions. Mahindra was unaware that Mala and Aasman had met a year ago, and it was during her wedding. She could remember Aasman because he had not said a word to her at that time. Now, as she reached out to shake hands with Aasman, she realised that he had completely failed to recognize her. Aasman, however, was thinking, “How unfair of Mahindra to make me share my cubicle with a newcomer. Until now, I had this cubicle all to myself.” Aasman also realized that their company XYZ was expanding at an exponential rate. So, it was no longer possible for all employees to have cubicles for themselves. He was a rising star, and, did not wish to make an issue of having to share the cubicle. He instead decided to take on the role of mentoring Mala, something that was largely encouraged at XYZ.
After Mahindra left the cubicle, Aasman too left since he had to attend a departmental meeting which kept him busy until after the lunch hour. When he returned to his desk, he found Mala surfing the internet since she was yet to be assigned with any particular task. Mahindra had left with her a copy of XYZ’s Service Rules Manual, with a suggestion that she peruse it. It appeared to Aasman as if Mala had not interacted with anybody the entire morning. Recalling how his own early days at XYZ company had been like, along with its hugely competitive work environment, he felt sorry for Mala. He politely invited Mala to join him for lunch at XYZ’s cafeteria, and she readily agreed. As they entered the popular cafeteria, Aasman led Mala to the only table with two unoccupied seats. He then went and came back with two plates of sandwiches after paying for them at the counter. He had an animated conversation at lunch with Mala, informing her about the various dos and don’ts at XYZ.
While Mala was waiting for Aasman to return with the sandwiches, she tried to join in the discussion that some three women were having at her table. They were debating the relative merits and demerits of flexitime. The women had cut her off when one of them declared that she would not know about flexitime at XYZ. Mala felt a bit like a lone dog who had joined a pack of wolves guarding its territory. She was glad when Aasman returned with the sandwiches and gave him a warm smile. As she did so, she noticed Mahindra at a table nearby, who nodded to her pleasantly.
The next day, Aasman was seated in his cubicle discussing a report with his colleague Anita. Mala came in after it was past 10 AM, although the reporting time for all managers was 9.30 AM. Anita was seated at the table assigned to Mala. The latter therefore stood pointedly next to Anita and looked at Aasman. Aasman smiled at both Anita and Mala and introduced them to each other. He then suggested Anita that they should continue their discussion in one of the small discussion areas scattered around XYZ. As Aasman and Anita left the cubicle together, Mala prodded Aasman with her ballpoint pen and requested him to take her along when he went to the cafeteria for lunch. Aasman agreed and disappeared with Anita. After he finished his discussion with Anita, the two continued to sit in the discussion area, working separately on their laptops. Without Mala’s interruptions, Aasman found that he could work with greater concentration, since Mala had this habit of asking questions periodically.
At lunch time, Aasman and Anita went together to the cafeteria. It was only when they were both at the counter placing orders for their lunches that Anita exclaimed that Mala had asked Aasman to accompany her to the cafeteria as well. Aasman grimaced but dutifully went and fetched Mala. Anita meanwhile took two lunches and went and sat at an empty table. Soon after she had started eating, Aasman arrived with Mala in tow. At the table, Mala skidded slightly as the floor had recently been mopped, and was therefore, slightly wet. As if by reflex action, Aasman reached out and steadied Mala. Had he not gripped her, Mala would have lost her balance and fallen. After Aasman and Mala sat down, Anita placed a hand on Mala’s shoulder and said, “That should teach you not to wear pencil heels to work.” Mala did not retort; she never did. When Aasman continued his project-related discussion with Anita, Mala looked around the cafeteria. She noticed Mahindra entering the cafeteria, and, made a small gesture inviting him to come and sit in the empty chair next to her. Mahindra did so. Anita had observed Mala’s slight hand gesture calling Mahindra over. Glancing at Mala and Mahindra she chirruped, “I did not know you were buddies.”
“She had come to my office this morning to seek clarifications on some of our service rules,” explained Mahindra. “She also wants to leave half an hour early today as she has to take her mother to see a doctor.”
The week passed very quickly for Aasman. He enjoyed his work and put his heart and soul into it. He had noted that Mala was a restive person who walked around quite a bit. She frequently went to the water cooler station, the ladies room, or, one of the discussion areas where she sat by herself twiddling her thumbs. Her immediate boss, Seeta, had no time for her, and issued work instructions to her by email. Apparently, Mala did her work satisfactorily, though she seemed to lack the confidence, and, was always consulting Aasman. Occasionally, she would place her hand on his shoulder when addressing a question to him. This had started soon after Aasman had prevented Mala from slipping and falling in the cafeteria. Aasman was due for a promotion, and, he had decided that he would request a cubicle to himself once the promotion came through. Though an extrovert and amiable, he was ambitious, and found Mala’s ever‑increasing dependence on him a millstone around his neck. She even asked his opinion on whether the new clothes she wore suited her. How had she become so comfortable with him so fast, he wondered.
Meanwhile, Aasman and Mala had got into the routine of going together for lunch to the cafeteria. Mala said she like going to the cafeteria at 12.45 PM, before it started getting crowded. Gradually, over a six month period, Aasman sensed that his colleagues were not joining him at his table for lunch. He, however, was so busy that he did not give much credence to this. He did after all fraternize with his colleagues regularly in the discussion areas. He also had coffee with three of his three friends every day as had been their custom for a year and a half now. Once, when he had stood up in his cubicle to make his way to the coffee station, Mala had said that she would come too. Aasman had quickly demurred, saying that he and his three friends were a “boys only club of four.” He had also once counselled Mala on what appeared to be her lack of drive. She had giggled and replied that she had only joined six months ago, but in course of time, she would make her mark.
Aasman also descried that Mala used his belongings without so much as a polite by your leave. She even used his coffee mug the day she broke the one given her by XYZ. Aasman thought that this could be justified at a pinch, since his mug had also been given to him by XYZ. All this reminded him of his student days when his belongings were accessed by the other boys in his hostel.
On April 1st, Aasman went to his cubicle as usual and hit the ground running as far as his work was concerned. Only at 11.00 AM did he notice that Mala had not yet come to work. Just then, Mahindra called him on his intercom. “I am sorry, I have some bad news for you,” said Mahindra. “It is best that you come to my office and we continue our conversation there.” Aasman wondered why he had received such summons from Mahindra since technically they were at the same level. And, Mahindra had never spoken to him in this fashion before. He wondered where he might have taken a professional misstep, but could think of nothing. Only two days ago, his boss had commented that Aasman’s promotion was practically in the bag. This was perhaps Mahindra’s idea of an April Fool’s joke.
When Aasman reached Mahindra’s cubicle, he did not know what hit him. “A sexual harassment case has filed against you,” said Mahindra. Aasman looked Mahindra in the eye and replied, “You know that cannot be true.” “My opinion is irrelevant,” countered Mahindra. Aasman realized then that Mahindra saw this as opportunity to demonstrate his abilities as a competent HR manager. So Aasman simply asked, “Who is making this claim?” “Mala,” was Mahindra’s monosyllabic answer. Mahindra then continued by saying, “We have to now proceed to the Committee Room. The committee which conducted an internal investigation into Mala’s complaint would like to meet you.” Aasman went along with Mahindra to the Committee Room, where he was not even asked to sit down. The three-member internal complaints committee comprised Mahindra, Mala’s boss Seeta, and Aasman’s boss Rahul. They advised him that the complaint was damning, and, that he should resign rather than face a lengthy investigation.
As Mala’s complaint was read out to him, Aasman could not believe what had happened. Mala had accused him of groping her in their cubicle. When she had taken exception to this, she alleged that Aasman had said he would not help her with her work anymore. Aasman knew this to be flagrantly untrue. But there were no witnesses. Day before yesterday, both Aasman and Mala had been working beyond office hours. At 6.30 PM, Mala had risen to leave for the day. Aasman was already standing. Just then, Mala had tripped in her high heels. Aasman had reached out instinctively to steady her, and, had accidently touched her inappropriately. Though Mala accepted his apologies she later felt violated with the incident. She felt that Aasman had tripped her deliberately so that he could make advances.
Mala went home and prepared her complaint from her house. She had the house to herself as her husband was away on work. She wrote the complaint in a single sitting, and, at a few minutes past midnight, straightaway sent the soft copy to Mahindra. But wonder among wonders, Mahindra acknowledged receipt immediately with a polite mail assuring her that the complaint would be given the due attention it merited. He also commended her for the adroit use of legal jargon. Mala went to work the next day and avoided using her cubicle. Instead, she spent part of the day sitting in Mahindra’s office and revising the complaint she had filed. Mahindra dictated some portions that were required to be included. The document was then re-written to protect Mala’s identity. She was referred to not by her name, but merely as ‘the aggrieved woman.’
As Aasman stood before the internal complaints committee of XYZ company, he experienced a myriad of emotions. But, most of all, he experienced a sense of betrayal. He did not feel betrayed by Mala as much as by Mahindra. Competition was intense at XYZ, and, people likened the work environment to a snake pit. And, she had cleverly put forward a case that he had been conducting himself unprofessionally with her from the day she joined, with the intention of misbehaving with her eventually. And, the best course of action before him was to resign.
This is a very unique case of sexual harassment at workplace which can go wrong quite easily. There are some aspects to the case which can often confuse some of the most seasoned professionals. In this case, Mala, the complainant, claims to have been sexually harassed by her colleague Aasman who contests the claim. Neither parties seem to have any evidence to substantiate their claims. In that case, as per the POSH (Prevention of Sexual Harassment against women at workplace) Act, the incident would need to be investigated. It also needs to be kept in mind that for any Internal Complaints Committee to accept a case, the interpretation needs to be as per the complainant’s version. What this means in this case is irrespective of the actual chain of events, and the committee or the HR team will have to first accept the complaint of Mala.
Dr. Nina Jacob is currently Professor, OB & HRM at the IFIM Business School, Bangalore as well as the chairperson of the VB Padode Centre for Sustainability.
Analysis By Pinakesh Mukherjee
Areas of concern:
♦ Mahindra’s action of dictating parts of the complaint seems to be a case of misplaced sense of employee advocacy. The role of HR in such cases is to report matters as observed without any prejudice to the investigating committee and not take sides. An adroit HR professional would also ensure that all the stakeholders involved are appropriately informed in a timely manner.
♦ Another area of concern is the manner in which Mahindra revealed the identity of the complainant. Normally, the identity is kept confidential to ensure safe and fair execution of appropriate action without any prejudice.
♦Past incidents prior to the sexual harassment report: It is mentioned that Mala, would at times, place her hands on Aasman’s shoulder while addressing a question to him. Aasman should have exercised caution early on to ensure that these incidents were not used against him at a later stage.
While on the face of it, the case seems to be about one person’s version against another, the facts can possibly be established by tracking video footages of the area around the desks of Mala and Aasman. In today’s world of active corporate security, it is fair to assume that the work floors are under CCTV surveillance. While Mala claims that Aasman had deliberately touched her, Aasman’s version is that he had acted instinctively to ensure Mala’s safety. What also needs to be taken into consideration is that Mala had also tripped previously as well, and, was prevented from falling by Aasman.
The question that can therefore be raised, is whether Aasman harbour similar intent in the past? If yes, why was the incident not reported? It can also be argued that in the incident at the cafeteria, Aasman did not touch her inappropriately, and, hence was not reported.
In his defense, Aasman could highlight that Mala would touch him on his shoulder while addressing any query and also enquired about how her dresses looked on her. And, the latter point is to be definitely construed as sexual in nature. However, since Aasman did not report these incidents earlier, his case might be treated as vindictive in nature in response to the sexual harassment case filed by Mala.
In the unlikely event of the absence of any video footages, or any other concrete evidence, a polygraph test could be an option to be considered. A polygraph test is likely to reveal who is fabricating the facts and might help in decision making. It is also possible that one of the two parties involved might not agree to a polygraph test, in which case it becomes the responsibility of the employer to clearly articulate the purpose and importance of the test, refusing which, the investigation cannot proceed further. Polygraph tests to assess veracity of sexual harassment claims are probably rare in organisations, but it could be a possible option in this scenario to establish the facts scientifically.
Analysis by Pramod Tripathi, Assistant General Manager-HR, Bajaj Energy Limited
In spite of a stern and strict legislation aimed towards the protection of women to restrain susceptible and deteriorating work conditions, cases related to violence against women, infuriating the diffidence, and sexual harassment are escalating with each passing day. Businesses and non-profit organisations must be aware of the potential liabilities for sexual harassment and a whitepaper on sexual harassment could aid employee awareness against improper conduct. Cases of sexual harassment are lodged owing to two multiplicities. One is “quid pro quo” or a “trade‑off.” The act committed by someone who can construct or efficiently influence service actions by sacking, downgrading, rejection of promotion, etc. Such a type of harassment is frequently committed by a supervisor, manager, or someone else who wields more power than the victim. The second is a “hostile environment,” resulting from an unwelcome mannerism of supervisors, co-workers, customers, vendors, or anyone else with whom a victimized employee works with. Certain things that can escalate to be a hostile environment include discussing sexual activities, telling off-colour jokes, unnecessary touching, commenting on physical attributes, displaying sexually suggestive pictures, and, granting favours to those who participate in consensual sexual activities.
Even though Mala was quick to recall seeing Aasman at her wedding, he did not indicate seeing her before. While he was unhappy sharing the cubicle with Mala, he did not articulate his displeasure with Mahindra, the HR Manager. Also, Aasman used to go to the cafeteria during the lunch hours with Mala on her behest alone. Mala nudging Aasman with a pen while he was leaving the cubicle with Anita is neither a good sign nor is it acceptable in corporate houses. When Mala slipped owing to the cafeteria floor being wet, Aasman’s effort in holding her from falling was a sheer act of impulse of protecting a colleague from harm’s way, and, bore no ill-intent.
Further, Aasman was also uneasy with frequent interventions by Mala while working. And, the fact that Mala had sufficient time to surf the internet during work hours, periodic visits to the water cooler station, the ladies room, or the discussion areas to idle her time, that her immediate boss Seeta had no time for her, and also the fact that she seemed to lack confidence and was always consulting Aasman on work-related issues, proves beyond anything that the management has zero focus on her, and, is making no efforts to try and indulge her into the main frame of the business matrix. If the management had suitably engaged Mala, she would be left with no time to idle. Further, her gesture of placing her hand on Aasman’s shoulder while addressing a question is indicative of immature behaviour. Mala would also ask Aasman’s opinion about her attire and used his personal belongings without any inhibition.
The advice given by the members of the Internal Committee to resign rather than face a lengthy investigation is also questionable. Accusing Aasman of groping her in their cubicle and levelling various improper acts allegedly committed by him, Mala had drafted her complaint during the midnight hour and sent the same to Mahindra. The fact that Mahindra immediately acknowledged the mail and replied back to her assuring justice smells like some sort of a conspiracy against Aasman, and, also suggests that Mala is probably being instigated by someone. Mahindra’s written appreciation to Mala on her drafting and the usage of legal terminology creates sufficient room for suspicion, while at the same time, indicates Mahindra’s role in the entire episode. In case Aasman does not heed to the committee’s advice of handing over his resignation, he will be forced to face a detailed inquiry, wait for the committee’s final report, and, implore his future prospects accordingly.
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