An insensitive gender harassment by an immature male coworker and subsequent actions by sexual harassment complaints committee in Amazon exposes how IT businesses and its Human Resources teams internalize the patriarchal values and cannot provide gender justice, as espoused in Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 and how business concerns override social concerns.
Harassment Incident and the aftermath
As per the story narrated by the female victim, K(name changed) has worked in Amazon Development Services in Perungudi for the past two years. On 28th April evening, a male coworker who is also her mentor, sent images of wall posters carrying advertisements about sex clinic that promise to fix all kinds of sexual dysfunctions. The clinic in the said poster had the same name as K. The male worker found this humorous and sent multiple images of this poster with an explicit tag marking her name and several emoticons in a whatsapp group, that had been officially created by her manager for inter-office communication.
When K did not respond to this, the male worker attempted to contact her via her phone and her colleagues’ phones. K alleges that a female colleague, a personal friend of the male coworker, texted her and visited her at K’s hostel in an attempt to gauge the actions considered by K. This female colleague is also alleged to have told K that while she was sympathetic and empathetic to her plight, she was up for promotion and any actions she may take could affect both their careers. While these discussions could not be substantiated, several sms messages between K and the female colleague add substance to the attitude faced by K from her team members.
The next day, after K reached her work, the male colleague allegedly approached her personally and told her sorry and proceeded to put an arm around her. K says that Amazon prides itself in open culture where the transgressions of such boundaries are normalized. He also followed up on April 30th with a whatsapp message to the group again with a ‘sorry…was jus kidding. No offence’ and with smileys. This was followed apparently by a message from a team member asking ‘What. Are you scared already?’ and a reply back from the male colleague, saying ‘lol(internet slang signifying laugh out loud) not like that’.
According to K, the tone of apology and the attitude of team members, articulated by the sms messages, that these should be taken in a spirit of camaraderie is what pushed her to file a complaint with Human Resources. She later spoke with HR personnel who also is said to have assured that this was a clear issue of sexual harassment and that it would be taken up for domestic enquiry. It also emerged from these conversations that Amazon, as a policy, does not permit creation of whatsapp group for interoffice communication and the whatsapp group itself was disbanded. K formally filed a complaint with Women’s investigation committee(WIC) in Amazon on April 30th.
Amazon’s handling of the sexual harassment issue
According to K, on a meeting on May 7th, four personnel from WIC team comprising 2 women HR, one male HR and one male counsellor met with K. In this meeting, she was asked to report the issue and provide corroborative evidences and witnesses. There were no further updates provided, says K during the investigation period, which was conducted over 3 months. According to K, during the investigation, when her manager went on leave, the male colleague was made acting manager. She escalated this issue to WIC team and refused to report to him while the investigation was on.
Through this period, since the episode started and in the following weeks, K says she has continued to hear comments from some of her team members both in her presence and outside making jokes and snide comments about the incident and more importantly her response.
At the end of the investigation, 90 days after the incident, on July 27th, K says an update was provided to her. Not by the WIC team, but by her own HR personnel. In this meeting, Head of HR of her department is said to have told her that actions have been taken against the male colleague, which will not be disclosed to her. Further, the HR is alleged to have told her that K should be more professional at her work place and should say no when such things happen.
K registered her objection to the proceeding by asking the members of WIC team to provide her the findings of the investigation and to arrange for a meeting to discuss the findings. After a scheduled meeting was postponed, K tendered her resignation to the company on August 3rd. In response, in a meeting scheduled on August 4th, a member of WIC team and a HR team discussed with her and told her that a stern warning had been given to the male colleague. The HR is also said to have told her ‘This was a bad episode but the business should go on'(as recorded in her email to Mr. Bozos, dated August 27th). She has also appealed to the CEO of the company in an email, with no substantial actions.
After several email exchanges, which include an offer by Amazon to transfer her to Bangalore office, K has proceeded to file a complaint with police and NCW for justice. On September 16, Amazon has finally accepted her repeated resignation. In the resignation letter, Amazon has stated ‘We also are very disappointed to know that you have a perception of being victimized which we feel is unwarranted’. The letter further highlights that ‘..such as the period taken for completion of the enquiry(because of the non-availability of the key witness, of which you were duly informed during the course of the investigation), no action taken against the respondent(he was given a warning letter and is now no longer employed with Amazon)…’.
Where did it all go wrong?
Amazon, according to K, takes pride in an open culture and as evinced, multiple modes of communications are maintained both officially and unofficially between team members. K says that she has worked hard to develop a professional career for herself within her team. This is reflected by her being awarded outstanding performance and being noted for her professional behaviour. Further, the male colleague was also her mentor when she had joined. While benefit of doubt can be extended to the male colleague, that it was his momentary lapse of judgement that led to the incident itself, it was also because he was her mentor, that she could not respond to the incident. Even when she approached it, it was only in making a private complaint to her manager.
While the male colleague was contrite enough to apologize for the incident, the manner in which this was done only increased the exposure of the incident and also seemed to brush the incident as a joke and is further exacerbated by the response of her team members who proceed to mock his apology for fear of repercussion even before K took any step. This only normalizes patriarchal values in the garb of open culture and team spirit. There seems no indication, that people in higher authority interceded to highlight in public forums, that such behaviours were unacceptable. It was the lack of official response and the normalized behaviour of her team members made K realize that her right to dignified workplace was being compromised in the name of team spirit. This is what K was trying to fight against when she made a formal complaint.
The sexual harassment act explicitly states that internal enquiry has to be conducted in the spirit of ‘natural justice’. Yet, the constitution and proceedings of sexual harassment complaints committee seem to violate the act in several ways. As the outcome of the proceedings, K was reprimanded for not being professional enough and that her ‘fear of victimization’ was personal and she had not placed professional boundaries between her mentor and herself. In essence, it is being said that the victim has brought this upon herself, which gender activists have documented is how patriarchy is enforced in denial of social justice. As per the act, K is entitled to the findings of the report and till the end of her resignation, no such findings were shared with her. An email to Amazon on these incidents by Thozhilalar Koodam has elicited no response.
Both the victim and the respondent have paid a price here. But while the respondent is allowed to resign with a sense of victimization, with rewards and with a farewell by his team members, the real victim leaves with no closure, no justice, no friends and even fighting to get her resignation accepted.
From the beginning, ample opportunities were present to both Amazon and the team management to correct the mistakes of the male coworker, which could have exemplified the natural justice articulated by the Act and could have avoided such drastic measures. The respondent himself could have ensured that the apology was done in the right spirit without making mockery of a bad situation. The team manager could have escalated this to HR without K having to take action. The manager and HR could have explicitly emailed the policy of harassment and proper communication at workplace to team members. That neither the WIC team nor HR team proactively articulated a sexual harassment policy for both the team and the manager on the rights and dignity for the victim that must be accorded in a workplace, only compounded the injustice heaped on the victim. The victim was repeatedly forced to go back to authorities and the authorities reacted to victim’s complaints instead of proactively containing such issues. Lack of effective communication, treating the issue as a irritant rather than as an injustice and blaming the victim has only exposed Amazon’s lip service to its policies of anti discriminatory policies. How can this be ever put alright. as every door to ensure justice to K has been closed in the pursuit of profit.