On 10 April as news broke of the horrific act of violence and depravity against an eight-year-old girl in Kathua near Jammu, how many companies do you think assembled their personnel to discuss the issue? Informally, of course, there would have been a lot of conversations around the subject; the sheer barbarism involved ensured no one could stay immune to it.
But very few companies would have taken it up in a formal forum like a town hall.
Schools, or at least some of them, do it in an effort to up the sensitization quotient of their wards. Using an incident like this to reinforce the basic premise of right and wrong is a part of early education.
Somehow though, at work, it isn’t considered a priority even when the demons we shun are often a part of our workplaces. The principal accused in the Kathua rape case is a retired government official. What’s worse, some of the outrageous voices of support for him came from executives.
Thus, Kotak Mahindra Bank Ltd set a fine example when it sacked one of its employees who posted on Facebook a particularly obnoxious comment on the matter, and it did so publicly, setting the tone for acceptable behaviour within the company.
Being responsible adults is a life-long learning exercise and the centrality of the workplace to most people’s lives means it has to be co-opted into our social fabric. Companies devote extraordinary amounts of time and energy in dealing with issues like sexual harassment and bullying since those affect performance at the workplace. Yet, when it comes to more complex social issues, the human resources departments of even the best companies often tend to treat them as beyond the scope of their charter.
A workplace can’t stay immune to the issues of the day. Businesses have a profound impact on society and business executives have a responsibility towards society. It’s time to put to rest the seventies Friedmanian neo-classical economics trope, which spelt business at the expense of everything else.
Quite apart from the fact that several employees with young children would have had insecurities of their own after repeated incidents of rape and violence against women surface, there is also the issue of how to handle such a crime in our midst. More than direct intervention, there has to be space within corporate settings to hear the concerns of the community, encourage debate on them, and even come up with innovative solutions. Beyond compliance and mandated corporate social responsibility (CSR), this is a strategic choice, one which has a business imperative, too. According to research by consulting firm McKinsey & Co., on an average, nearly 30% of corporate earnings are determined by a company’s relationships with society.
At a time when business ethics across the board are up for scrutiny, most companies’ ostrich-like attitude towards social evils is strange. Culture is eminently communicable and building it requires concerted efforts. Thus, in the recent turn of events at ICICI Bank Ltd, where the chief executive officer faces charges of nepotism, it would have made sense for banks to have got together staff and explained why the conflict of interest clause is of far greater significance in that industry.
Tragically, we have become obsessed with producing careerists first and last even as we give up our autonomy by undervaluing our inherent social confederations.
If companies are the fulcrum around which our society revolves, it is within their four walls that our values and principles have to be shaped and reinforced. We have to stop treating the workplace as an amoral hermetic chamber where the relentless pursuit of work cuts off from the larger context of life.
Sundeep Khanna is a consulting editor at Mint and oversees the newsroom’s corporate coverage. The Corporate Outsider will look at current issues and trends in the corporate sector every week.