In the Post #MeToo World, How Do We Build Safe, Equal Workplaces?

Social Commentary

In the Post #MeToo World, How Do We Build Safe, Equal Workplaces?

Illustration: Arati Gujar

RK Pachauri, Rajat Kapoor, Tarun Tejpal, and Phaneesh Murthy between them share one Nobel Prize, two national awards, one trailblazing news magazine, and highly coveted stakes in at least one billion dollar company. Yet, these four minds, who, for most part of their careers, represented the sharpest thinking in their respective domains, will now only be remembered for how they either mistreated women at their workplaces, or sought to capitalise the high grounds of their work for sexual favors.

What’s been made clear from the stories borne by the #MeToo movement is that the men who behaved inappropriately have usually done it at places where they exercised a degree of control. More incidents, for example, have been reported from the closed-off cabins and cubicles of offices, rather than public spaces like a club, gym, or a parent-teacher meeting. All of which point to a deliberate, machine-like leverage exercised by predators to harass women on territories where they clearly held the upper hand. This gives rise to the hypothesis that somehow the heady forces of intellect and power conquered the better judgements of these perpetrators.

One would assume the ability to exercise the right judgment would go hand in hand with intellect, but the actions of names like Prashant Jha (political editor of the Hindustan Times), Gautam Adhikari (former editor, DNA), Vinod Dua (TV journalist and host on The Wire) and self-proclaimed liberals like Chintan Ruparel (co-founder, Terribly Tiny Tales), Tanmay Bhat (of AIB, by virtue of his complicit knowledge), Suhel Seth (okay, not that intelligent, but still), along with a clutch of other journalists have defied rational behaviour. In doing so, they have displayed an inability to make the right choice and judgment at a workplace. This was not even pertaining to depreciating assets on a balance sheet or sensitive decisions about joint ventures, but the most elementary aspect of treating women with respect, regardless of their rank.

It is the utter disregard of consequences (of which there are none) that emboldens the predators further. But to talk about lack of consequences is to miss the point. This is simply about exercising the right judgement while working with women in a professional setting, regardless of consequences. In an article on The Guardian titled “Why Do Smart People Do Stupid Things?”, authored by behavioural business thinkers Andre Spicer and Mats Alvessen, a very pertinent observation is made, that might help us understand why these supposedly intelligent men made such regrettable decisions. The article states that “the smartest people ignore the intelligence of others so they make themselves feel smarter.”

It’s imperative for us hence to place a premium on hiring men (and women), who display a greater sense of self-awareness, and in a world that’s increasingly becoming data-driven, for us to not place “analysis” and “problem-solving” as sole measures of employability.

So in the high-profile cases of harassment we’ve seen recently, there are two possible explanations. One, that it’s the perceived state of power that magnifies the abusers’ ignorance and leads them to act in a certain way. Or two, that the ability to make the right judgment (or lack thereof) inherent in a working professional has been deliberately overlooked. Unlike intellect, which you can build on, the ability to make the right judgment is like a little chip you are wired with because of your background, your family, education, and your upbringing, among other things. It’s akin to an ingredient. When it comes to good judgement, you either have it or you don’t.

Nikita Saxena, who documented RK Pachauri’s modus operandi in great detail, referenced his precise targeting of young, vulnerable, single women who came from small towns. In many cases, the victims, in awe of Pachauri, turned a blind eye to the unreasonable demands, presuming that his intellect must be respected more than his judgment to act in a particular way. But it is this very lack of judgment regarding the treatment of co-workers that’s stupefying, something that pops up in recurring stories of powerful men abusing their position and influence.

It appears that while we look for problem-solving abilities and subject matter expertise when choosing our leaders, perhaps the quality that gets more ignored at our respective workplaces is situational and self-awareness, or in other words, emotional intelligence. In the light of all that we have seen from senior business leaders like Les Moonves and others closer home in India, the emerging equation appears to be that emotional intelligence is not just as important as IQ, but that it chomps IQ for breakfast.

It doesn’t matter if your IQ is 301, or whether you can solve a Rubik’s Cube in less than 10 seconds, or whether like Elon Musk, you have launched rockets into space and brought them back. What matters is whether we are aware of the problems of those around us, whether we can listen, and perceive with a sense of empathy, the stories of those around and make better judgments with our time and our words.

It’s imperative for us hence to place a premium on hiring men (and women), who display a greater sense of self-awareness, and in a world that’s increasingly becoming data-driven, for us to not place “analysis” and “problem-solving” as sole measures of employability. It’s for a good reason hence that a company as diverse and world-class as Netflix stresses on judgment as one among the core values that it seeks in prospective employees.

Because judgment about how to talk to women, and what to talk to women about, and how to touch women at a workplace isn’t as grey as it’s sometimes made out to be. It’s perhaps more black and white than we would like to admit.

Because in these times, the right judgment must lead our actions. Intellect can follow.