Is the tech ecosystem waking up to founders’ moral responsibility towards work culture?Sharika Nair
Enabling an out-of-control work culture has led to Travis Kalanick’s downfall. Will the Indian ecosystem stop turning a blind eye to the bad behaviour of the top dogs, described by Ariana Huffington as ‘brilliant jerks’?
Travis Kalanick’s resignation has added a new twist to the recent sordid tales coming out of Uber, the world’s most popular cab-hailing app, which has lately been in the news for all the wrong reasons. According to an explosive story by The New York Times in February this year, Uber was found to have a poor work culture, enabled by the top team.
New employees were encouraged to focus on meritocracy, with the core idea being that the best and brightest will rise to the top based on their efforts, even if it means pushing out others to get there.
While this killer spirit did help Uber become one of Silicon Valley’s biggest success stories, several current and former employees describe an inappropriate work environment at the company, in which employees thrive on unhealthy competition and the management turns a blind eye to infractions from top performers.
One Uber manager, who was later fired, is said to have groped several female co-workers at a company retreat in Las Vegas. Another manager threatened to beat an underperforming employee’s head in with a baseball bat. At a global all-hands meet in Las Vegas in 2015, where the company hired Beyoncé to perform, Uber employees used cocaine in the bathrooms.
The final nail in the coffin was ex-Uber engineer Susan Fowler’s scathing blog post which described systemic sexism and harassment at Uber’s San Francisco headquarters, as well as refusal by the company’s human resources department to address her concerns. Her story went viral.
Due to the media pressure, Travis had opened an internal investigation into the accusations and fired several managers who were found guilty of misconduct. He also brought in board member Arianna Huffington and former attorney general Eric H. Holder Jr. to look into the harassment issues. Huffington had said during an all-hands meet that there would no longer be hiring of “brilliant jerks.”
Uber’s story seems to be a turning point in an ecosystem which thrives on bro culture and where the misdeeds of rich and powerful men are easily forgiven. That somebody as powerful as Travis had to step down despite not being directly accused of sexual impropriety is interesting and promising. The world seems to be acknowledging that the founder/CEO has a moral culpability towards the culture created in his or her organisation.
Will Indian firms learn from Uber?
In India, however, even CEOs who have been directly accused of sexual misconduct have got off the hook rather lightly.
Arunabh Kumar, Founder-CEO of TVF, had resigned from his position months after several allegations of sexual harassment first came out against him. Initially, Arunabh had arrogantly told the media that he was only complimenting women by referring to them as “sexy.” He was reported as saying, “I am a heterosexual, single man and when I find a woman sexy, I tell her she’s sexy. I compliment women. Is that wrong? Having said that, I am very particular about my behaviour.”
It was only after pressure from investors, following months of severe financial losses and tarnished reputation of the brand that Arunabh decided to step down. In his farewell tweet, Arunabh had mentioned that though he was no longer associated with TVF in an official capacity, he was willing to mentor the content team for upcoming shows. However, recently there has been news that he is expected to return by the end of this year to reprise his role of Yogi in Pitchers 2 as the heat around the issue is also likely to cool down by then.
It was the inept handling of a sexual harassment case that was one of the factors that eventually led to Cyrus Mistry’s ouster from Tata Sons. Rakesh Sarna, Indian Hotels CEO, had been one of India’s highest- paid executives at Rs 18 crore, and ironically remained a member of the company’s prevention of sexual harassment (POSH) committee while investigation was pending against him.
The woman, who complained of Sarna’s inappropriate behaviour, had initially been shifted to another department and had finally quit. She had mentioned in her resignation letter, “During my seven months’ employment at Taj I was subjected to repeated unwanted sexual advances from Mr Sarna. When I ignored or tried to rebuff them the environment turned hostile.”
There are strict rules governing cases of sexual harassment. The woman has to be given a choice. It’s her option to decide if she wants to move out from her current role and not the other way around. Until the probe is complete—Section 11 of the Sexual Harassment of Women in Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition & Redressal Act 2013) stipulates inquiry into the complaint has to be completed in 90 days—the accused should not be in a position to influence the inquiry and should be in a different office from the complainant. If he is the CEO, he should be asked to proceed on leave for a few days pending the inquiry so that it is impartial and unbiased.
It is heartening that CEOs are paying a price for poor behaviour, whether their own or of someone from the core team. However, a more empathetic and ethical attitude would go a long way in making workplaces safer for women and help deal with such unpleasant situations in a more professional and just manner.