NEW DELHI — In October 2015, a Bangalore-based start-up acted swiftly after a female employee accused her boss of sexual harassment. Once the complaint was filed, the company’s Internal Complaints Committee (IC), set up in compliance with the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act of 2013, also known as the POSH Act, took up the case.
Five weeks later, the IC found that the allegations of sexual harassment against Arun Raj, then Vice President of Growth and Marketing for Wooplr, an online shopping app, were true. Wooplr demoted Raj to Senior Marketing Manager, suspended him for seven days, and docked his pay.
Yet it was Raj, who ended up staying and growing at the company. He won back his position through successive promotions and is Wooplr’s VP Growth and Marketing once more.
The woman who complained against him, however, felt compelled to leave. The environment in her office felt hostile, she said, and she did not want to face her harasser every day.
“I really thought they would fire him. I didn’t expect them to be okay with having a sexual predator working in the place,” the woman told HuffPost India. “It is a man’s world.”
The woman’s experience at Wooplr offers an insight into a little-discussed aspect of the pernicious problem of sexual harassment and assault at the workplace in India: the deck is so stacked against women employees that even when companies act against promptly male offenders, women still pay a heavy price.
While male employees are treated as if they themselves are victims of the process, the women complainants find their careers stalled despite doing their best to act like professionals.
Today, India’s MeToo moment is forcing a conversation beyond the acknowledgement of widespread sexual harassment at the workplace to a far more uncomfortable conversation about what constitutes commensurate punishment for the offender, and the steps needed to ensure that complainants still feel valued at their workplace.
At Wooplr, the woman said, she felt that the company did not do enough. When HuffPost India sent specific queries to the company, Woopler responded suggesting that the fact that the company acted on the complaint was evidence enough that the company acted in good faith.
“Life went on for him as if nothing happened, but nothing worked out for me. I was driven out of there,” the woman said. “I was the one who had to find another job and get a pay cut. I’m the one who has nightmares every day. I’m the one who is diagnosed with PTSD.” PTSD refers to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
“I was in Nepal when the #MeToo movement happened, and since then it has been trigger, trigger, trigger,” she said.
I really thought they would fire him. I didn’t expect them to be okay with having a sexual predator working in the place.
Wooplr did not send specific replies to a detailed email HuffPost India sent regarding the incident and the events that followed, but offered the following statement as a response:
“It is unequivocally asserted that the manner in which the complaint of sexual harassment was dealt with by the Company was entirely in accordance with the law.”
In a brief conversation with HuffPost India, Ankit Sabharwal, co-founder of Wooplr, said that the e-commerce startup did its best to deal with the situation.
Sabharwal and another co-founder of Wooplr were members of the committee, along with two female employees and one external member.
“We set up a committee, which made a recommendation of demotion, and we acted on it. We didn’t even take a moment to ask anyone, to delay or to negotiate, and we acted swiftly,” he said.
We didn’t even take a moment to ask anyone, to delay or to negotiate, and we acted swiftly.
HuffPost India reached out to Nirmala Menon, CEO of Interweave Consulting, who has been part of several ICs in her 30-plus years as an HR professional, to gauge if Wooplr had decided on an adequate punishment in the case.
As an external person it is impossible to comment on the decision of any IC, Menon said.
“The specifics of every case is so different and only the IC members are privy to it. We just have to trust the process to do justice to a complaint,” she said. “It is a moment for truth for the company and what it is willing to tolerate.”
Menon added, “The punishment must be a balanced one keeping the gravity of the offence in mind and in most cases, we give the person a chance to reform. It would be unfair to punish someone over and over again for the same crime”.
Sexual harassment and assault
The woman’s recollection of the incident illustrates how seemingly routine workplace rituals—such as getting a drink with a colleague after work—can quickly turn into a fraught situation for female colleagues, with their male counterparts interpreting mundane social interactions as an invitation for sexual advances. The incident’s aftermath brings home how women must then choose between speaking out and safeguarding their careers.
“I may have been friendly with him but nothing more than that. I could never imagine he would attack me in that way,” the woman said. “I thought it would be okay to be friends with my boss.”
On the intervening night of 10 and 11 September 2015, the woman and her boss left Prost brewery in Bangalore and made their way to her house in her car. While watching videos that night, Raj put his hand on her back, the inquiry committee subsequently established, but removed it when she objected.
The next day, on the intervening night of 11 and 12 September, the woman and her boss left Prost brewery and went to her house in her car. The woman, who was 28 at the time, wanted Raj, then 30, to drop her off and take a cab back to his place.
The woman said that she had asked Raj to wait in her house for the cab. While watching videos on her laptop, she said, he started playing pornography and then forced physical contact with her, not once but twice.
Later in the day, on 12 September, Raj sent her a text saying, “Sorry about yesterday. Kinda got a little pushy now that I think.”
Speaking to HuffPost India, the woman said, “I simply did not have the balls to throw him out of the house because I knew that I had to go back to the office and see him. I didn’t even do anything for the first two weeks when it happened. I decided to let it go,” she said.
At a gathering at a colleague’s house on 16 September, four days after he had harassed her at her home, the woman said that Raj spent the evening staring at her.
The next day, he sent her a text saying, “Hope I did not make you uncomfortable in anyway yesterday. Sorry if I did. It’s just that your eyes are fucking mesmerizing….”
The woman said she was willing to forget all the incidents for the sake of her career.
“I was really kicked about the kind of work that I was doing and that I was good at it. I didn’t want anything to get in the way of it,” she said. “He was my immediate boss. If we had a weird equation I thought it would be very difficult for me to work with him.”
But over the course of the next two weeks, the woman said she felt a drastic change in how she was being treated as a professional, which led her to file a complaint of sexual harassment against Raj.
“He started ignoring my suggestions at work, wasn’t taking me seriously, and was slowly taking away the responsibilities I was assigned. All because I wasn’t willing to sleep with him,” she said in an unpublished written account shared with HuffPost India.
Raj did not respond to HuffPost India’s request for comment on the case.
IC and Due Process
The woman filed a formal complaint on 8 October 2015, following a verbal discussion with the HR representative and two of the four co-founders in her company. The IC was constituted on the same day, and over the course of the next few weeks, the woman and her boss shared their recollection of the two incidents which had occurred the previous month.
The IC found Raj’s conduct was unprofessional, and also not befitting of a relationship between a manager and his subordinate.
Once the IC process was underway, the woman felt the company did not stand by her.
After the incident, the first thing which bothered the woman was having to sit next to the man she had accused of sexual harassment.
Raj had moved his seat next to hers a week or ten days before the incident, and it was only after the woman insisted that his seat was changed.
“After I filed the complaint, they did not change his place. I had to go sit next to him every day. I just didn’t feel like going to office. So, every day, I would make up an excuse, so many excuses to not go or to go late,” she said. “I had to tell them explicitly to please change his place.”
The woman believes the management of Wooplr could have given her the option of working from home or asking him to do so for the duration of the investigation.
“Why should I have to work from home? Why not him? Why could they not have empathized a little bit?” she asked.
I had to tell them explicitly to please change his place.
Instead of making her feel like she was in a safe space, the woman said, the management turned on her and eventually forced her out.
Her two-week leave, which she had applied for much before the incident and which Raj had granted, was cancelled. Arjun Zacharia, the CEO of the company, she said, told her there was no guarantee that her job would be available if she chose to go on vacation. The woman said that Zacharia asked her to speak with Raj and confirm whether he had granted her leave even though he knew that she had accused him of sexual harassment.
Wooplr did not respond to HuffPost India’s questions on the woman was not granted her leaves.
The woman resigned on 9 November, but served out a notice period till 20 November. A day before she was leaving the company, the woman said the company asked her if she wanted to rejoin work after a two-month sabbatical.
The woman believes the company just wanted to get it right on paper.
“Did they expect that I would go away for two months and then come back and be okay seeing his face? The onus is on the company to make the victim feel safe,” she said. “Why was the workplace not made safe for me? Why was it made safe for a sexual predator?”
While the IC found the allegations against Raj to be true and demoted him, him was subsequently promoted back to his original position over three years.
In a brief conversation with HuffPost India, Sabharwal, the co-founder, sought to justify the promotions which Raj had received.
“As a company, we acted on what was done at the time,” he said, adding that Raj’s promotion was based on his work in the company.
In its statement, the company said, “It may be specifically noted that the POSH Act and associated rules prescribe a range of punishments (such as warning, censure, withholding of promotions, withholding of increments etc.) therefore, the law does not mandate that every instance of sexual harassment, regardless of the factual circumstances, should result in termination of employment of the accused.”
Wooplr did not respond to HuffPost India’s query about whether Raj is paid more today than he was in 2015.
In response to HuffPost India’s query on whether female employees at the company were warned of Raj’s past behaviour, Wooplr said, “Also, your expectation that the women workforce at large should be informed about the details of a sensitive sexual harassment matter is misplaced and has no basis in law or market practice. In fact the law mandates that the identity of the respondent be maintained confidential.”
Yet Section 16 of the POSH Act, it is worth noting, contains a the caveat that the name of the respondent may be revealed as long as it does not compromise the identity of the woman, or any witnesses.
Your expectation that the women workforce at large should be informed about the details of a sensitive sexual harassment matter is misplaced…
What happened after
A former female employee of Wooplr, on the condition of anonymity, said that the management never informed female employees that Raj was found guilty of sexual harassment even as he continued working with them.
The farewell email which the complainant sent to all employees, explaining why she was leaving the company, was the only source of information for female employees. For a brief spell, the former employee said, it led to Raj getting isolated within the company.
The former employee also said that the management did not inform employees that Raj had been demoted, and it was treated like a change in designation.
Then, said the former employee, the company’s HR officer called female employees for a meeting and they were told that the company had “not found anything” against Raj and that was why he had been retained as an employee.
In fact, female employees were told that it was unprofessional to isolate Raj. “We were told that if you have any issue with him then talk about it now, but not to treat a fellow employee unfairly,” she said.
Another former female employee, who spoke with HuffPost India on the condition of anonymity, confirmed that female employees were summoned to such a meeting.
“He (Raj) was treated like a prince,” she said. “He was forever cocooned.”
“He was treated like a prince. He was forever cocooned.”
Female employees who told HR that they were not comfortable speaking with him, this employee recalled, were brushed aside.
CEO Zacharia, she said, told them, “If it is such a problem for you then why are you here? We feel that we have taken the measures that we feel are right.”
In response to HuffPost India’s query as to whether female employees were told not to isolate Raj, and whether Zacharia had made the above-mentioned remark, Wooplr said, “We note that a number of your questions also insinuate impropriety by the Company’s CEO, HR etc. These have no basis in fact, and appear to only have the intent of harassing and defaming the Company and the individuals concerned.”
Within a few months, the former female employees said, the matter was forgotten.
The woman who had complained against Raj said, “His life was unaffected in the larger scheme of things. Who in Wooplr remembers what he did?”