Exit of Flipkart CEO adds to fears in Corporate India about sexual misconduct
* India's #MeToo worrying companies about reputation
* Lawyers, headhunters getting more queries from nervous
* Indian corporates putting in place systems to protect
* Demand rising to create safer work environments for women
By Aditya Kalra and Nivedita Bhattacharjee
NEW DELHI/BENGALURU, Nov 16 (Reuters) - In 2015, when Antony
Alex pitched his training products for tackling sexual
harassment in the workplace, large and small businesses in India
mostly turned him away saying it was not worth the investment.
This year, however, Alex's Mumbai-based consultancy firm
Rainmaker is witnessing its sharpest growth ever as companies
quickly try to educate employees about anti-sexual harassment
laws and company policies.
The real surge in demand came following the spread of
India's #MeToo movement, which in recent weeks has seen dozens
of women publicly air sexual harassment allegations against
prominent journalists, actors and other public figures.
This week's resignation of Binny Bansal, the chief executive
of Walmart Inc's Indian venture Flipkart, following an
internal probe into accusations of personal misconduct, is
expected to only add to the momentum. Flipkart's Bansal has
denied the misconduct accusations, which two sources told
Reuters followed an allegation of sexual assault.
But the sudden exit of the tech-savvy billionaire shocked
Indian businesses as he was regarded as a superstar entrepreneur
who co-founded the e-commerce company little more than a decade
ago while still in his 20s. Walmart acquired Flipkart in a $16
billion deal this year.
"The lesson in this for start-ups that are scaling up
rapidly is clear. Governance issues cannot be ignored ... and
the management needs to be far more sensitive, alert and
prepared," T.N. Hari, head of human resources at grocery website
Bigbasket.com, wrote in a column for Indian newspaper Mint.
Companies - large and small - are now approaching
headhunters, law firms and boutique consultancies such as
Rainmaker to ensure they provide a safer workplace for women,
become better equipped to handle complaints and run proper
checks on prospective employees.
"Companies are understanding that if POSH (prevention of
sexual harassment) compliance goes wrong, it can bring down the
company and the brand," said Alex, whose client base has grown
by 30 percent in the last six months and includes major domestic
and international firms.
"I would sum it up as fear, they are petrified of the brand
CAUTIOUS INDIA INC
The #MeToo movement began in the United States last year in
response to accusations of sexual harassment in the
entertainment industry. In India, the movement gained traction
in September after a Bollywood actress complained about
inappropriate behaviour by a co-star.
Corporate India is now having to react.
An executive for Amazon.com Inc's video streaming service
told Reuters on Wednesday that an Indian comic facing
allegations of sexual misconduct would for now not be in charge
of an upcoming political satire.
And the same day, Indian automobile giant Tata Motors
sacked its head of media communications following an
internal probe into allegations of sexual harassment.
Pratibha Jain, a partner at Indian law firm Nishith Desai
Associates, said her clients were increasingly asking for help
in investigations into claims of sexual misconduct and
reputational due diligence of even their external service
providers, such as lawyers.
"In the past, such cases may have been brushed under the
carpet, but employee sensitization has definitely increased
given the movement," said Jain.
Some queries showed how the movement has unnerved India Inc.
A senior executive at a multinational company in India recently
sought Jain's advice about whether he should stop talking
altogether to women alone in a room, while some firms have
considered installing closed-circuit television cameras that
could assist if they had to investigate an alleged case of
Talent-advisory firm Hunt Partners has started receiving
more requests for running specific checks on whether there are
any sexual harassment complaints against a potential hire.
"Even if the Indian business leaders may have been
irresponsible about these things in the past, they are now
falling in line," said Suresh Raina, one of the firm's partners.
India, population 1.3 billion, is still a largely
conservative country. Despite rapid urbanisation and economic
growth in recent years, the female labour-force participation
rate remains among the lowest in the world.
Only 20 percent of all the permanent employees of the top
publicly traded companies in India are women, according to the
Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy.
A 2013 law aimed at making workplaces safer for women
mandated that all companies employing 10 or more workers should
form an internal committee that would look at complaints of
sexual harassment. It also mandated employers to organise
awareness programmes about the law.
In practice, many companies still have a long way to go to
meet the law's standards, human resources experts said.
"Very few companies are 100 percent compliant," said Alex,
chief executive of Rainmaker.
India recorded 533 cases of sexual harassment against women
in the workplace in the year to July, compared with 522 in the
whole of 2015, government data showed. It was not clear how that
data was compiled.
But reporting of complaints remains low, largely because
women fear a backlash, say experts. A recent survey from citizen
engagement platform LocalCircles showed that 78 percent of the
7,600 people polled said they or their family members faced, but
did not report, sexual harrasment in the workplace.
Mukund Rajan, former chief ethics officer at Indian
conglomerate Tata Sons, said many companies paid only "lip
service" to protecting women's interests. The Indian law says a
complaint and the identity of a woman alleging sexual
harassment, as well as a company's subsequent internal
investigation, must be kept confidential.
"I have seen a number of cases where whistleblowers who have
called out senior managers for misconduct or offensive behaviour
have ended up being shown the exit door themselves," Rajan said.
(Reporting by Aditya Kalra in New Delhi and Nivedita
Bhattacharjee in Bengaluru; Additional reporting by Abhirup Roy
and Aditi Shah; Editing by Martin Howell and Alex Richardson)
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