Is a company's reputation greater than the cost of a life?
The stress that originates from higher-order conflicts such as values and ethics is much more impactful
While India Inc waits for the air to clear around Charudatta Deshpande’s death, the incident illuminates some questions that individuals or organisations are not comfortable asking themselves
Charudatta Deshpande, the former communications and corporate affairs at Tata Steel, was found dead in his house in suburban Mumbai last Friday. Police suspect that Deshpande, who had quit the company in April, committed suicide. The death came as a shock to many as he was remembered by friends and colleagues as a calm and calculative individual and someone who was always in control of the situation.
Deshpande’s ex-colleague, Salil Tripathi, writes in Mint that he spent his last few weeks in constant stress that included dealing with fears of his phone being tapped, the ‘mafia’ following him, and the humiliation of being virtually being trapped in Jamshedpur for a while. Four days after his death, Tata Group chairman Cyrus Mistry approved a probe into allegations on his end.
It is not uncommon to hear employees complain about stress at the workplace. Over the last couple of months, workplace surveys from analytics firms such as Cigna, Harris Interactive and ABS show that employee stress levels have increased significantly over the years since the last global financial crisis.
Several factors contribute to the growing incidence of stress at the workplace. Among them, some of the most common include manager quality, performance pressures and inaccurate mapping of expectations and skills. While some of these problems are situational and apply only to employees with bad managers or being caught in the wrong job, the more alarming are the ones originating from conflict of interests between the organisation and the individual. The stress that originates from higher-order conflicts such as values and ethics is much more impactful and can make a manager and his performance-related stress appear trivial.
Some argue that Deshpande was a victim of pressure and intimidation from the Tata Steel management for having gained access to information that was potentially embarrassing for the organisation. Tripathi remembers Deshpande as a tough man who had extensive journalistic experiences covering crime, politics and business and was no newcomer to intimidation. The extreme step leads Tripathi to remark, “The shocking reports of his death suggest something far more sinister about the circumstances that led him to take this ultimate step.”
Another of Deshpande’s former colleagues, K. Ramkumar, Executive Director of ICICI Bank, in a letter to Cyrus Mistry, Ratan Tata and Krishna Kumar has expressed shock in the manner Tata Steel dealt with the situation and has requested a probe into the incident.
The Tata Group constituted a probe committee on July 3 to investigate if the employer had a role in Deshpande’s suicide. Many consider this move as eyewash because the individuals constituting the probe committee report to the Tata board and anything that goes to the press will be vetted by the Board before the release of its report.
Foxconn, a Taiwanese company that does manufacturing and assembling for some of the world’s biggest electronics brands, including Apple and Hewlett-Packard, has more than a million workers in China. The company has been plagued by labour problems and hit by a wave of suicides. At least 13 Chinese workers committed suicide in 2010 due to its tough working conditions, AFP reported. The company said, “An internal review shows that there is no indication that they were caused by work-related matters.”
China Labor Watch, a group that monitors Chinese labour practices, said in a news release that the reasons for the deaths were unclear, but suggested they were related to labour practices inside the factory that limit conversation among workers.
While the death of Deshpande cannot be undone, the episode brings to light, several questions that an employee encounters when s/he comes under similar fire. Some of these include: What should I do when I see my employer taking decisions that conflict with my personal values? Should I stay silent and move on to another job? What is the best way to express my displeasure to the management for issues that concern conflict of values and integrity without sounding intimidating?
For the organisational management too, there are several questions they should have answers to when such situations arise. These include: Should we persuade an employee with a conflict of interest to accept our way? Is there any dignified way to sever the chord with an employee with a conflict of interest? While it has worked in the past, should we pressurise an employee to accept our way? And the most important of all, “Is the cost of bad reputation, greater than the life of the employee?”