When your driver accidentally hits someone, when your servant (I just hate this term) causes someone harm or if the guy painting your wall falls and breaks a leg, you are responsible. Sounds unreasonable? Well, it’s called vicarious responsibility, and it’s the law!
We all, even the aamest of aadmi’s – oh and the ladies too – have a little bit of the devil in us. Sneaking past a red light, slipping a currency note to get things done! We’re human, we slip up and the law is ’lenient’.
Sometimes, it gets bigger: issuing rubber cheques, taking large loans from financial institutions or little ones from colleagues and not paying; and bigger: assault or causing death, employing children as domestic helps (this is so common!)…the list goes on.
Talent acquisition processes go to great lengths to determine skills and competencies. They just assume that the ‘good fit’ candidate is also a good citizen. Besides, the background verification covers the no ‘criminal record’ piece, right?
So, if an employee of your organization breaks a law, entirely unrelated to work, would your organization take any responsibility at all?
The simple answer is – No!
There’s no legal liability, therefore no responsibility.
Okay, that was easy! In fact, companies pre-protect themselves with boilerplate clauses in almost every appointment letter. Be good citizens, but get convicted and you’re fired! Companies do exercise this clause – it gives them legal immunity, deniability and the ability to take the moral high ground.
The more difficult answer is…yes!
Directly or otherwise, the company does get involved and that’s the invisible side of vicarious responsibility.
- Black visibility for the Company’s brand: Among the first things to emerge is place of work. Flashing a visiting card is a habit. It establishes credibility, helps throw some weight around, and while it sometimes works; it also exposes the brand. So if the errant employee gets dragged in the muck, so does the brand.
- Wastage of time and resources: Affected parties tend not to keep quiet. Causing embarrassment does accord some sort of justice! A ruckus in a very public place – like the office – works quite well! Collection agents have mastered this art! Law enforcing agencies will not hesitate to enter the office premises frequently. To investigate and even arrest. In full view of other employees, visitors and, possibly, clients. Also adding to the adverse publicity. Between PR, Legal and Security, such situations need tactful handling.
- And…sometimes innocents are oppressed: Not all allegations are true. Sometimes innocents get dragged into legal tangles. If an employee gets defrauded or assaulted, or is fighting a messy divorce? She needs time, money, legal and psychological support. It’s totally personal. Yet can the organization truly turn its head and say ‘not our problem?
Whether the descriptor is vicarious responsibility or moral responsibility, either way, the organization does get dragged into the equation. A mix of prevention and action can determine the degree of employee sensitivity an organization can demonstrate:
- Back to fundamentals: Start with the company values, assuming they exist: do they include a ‘good citizen’ clause; has every employee internalized them; is a fresh communication approach required and so on.
- Recognize the signs and lay out the caution: The office grapevine has one inherent quality – it’s usually accurate! Whispers about unpaid loans and credit card defaults, domestic strife – are distinct. People know who is battling a domestic problem and who is employing a child as a domestic. It’s none of the company’s business, but…it could be!
- CEO’s no negotiation stand on breaking the law: When addressing the employee population during town halls, the CEO must reiterate the importance of being law abiding citizens. Generic examples, or more specific ones from the press or industry can be cited.
- Act on complaints: When someone writes in to complain about someone on the team, the mail gets ignored – it’s a personal issue anyway. At best, the leader may forward the mail to the person with an FYI & a comment. Action should be taken at this stage – urge the individual to sort the matter out, or issue a warning invoking good citizenship from the company values.
- Protect the innocent: Sometimes an employee’s innocence is obvious. Organizations can demonstrate their employee sensitive nature by stepping forward to help. Offer some legal help as corporates have enviable legal departments or may be an interest-free personal loan, restructuring performance metrics, are little things that truly help. There’s no need to tom-tom these sensitive little acts. The good word gets around!
Proactively taking on vicarious responsibility, without the law assigning it, is indeed a ‘brave’ act requiring time and resources. People may even consider it an interference in their personal lives. Yet, it’s the correct thing to do!
And no law prevents it.