At a recent discussion with a background verification firm, a large e-commerce company made it clear that it does not want any ‘flying allegations’ against prospective candidates for the post of Chief Technology Officer. The company also wanted to ensure that no such allegation was mentioned on social media as well.
Industry sources said companies operating in the financial services, advertising and internet space are the ones treading cautiously at present.
“Especially in the advertising world, where there have been large number of complaints using #MeToo on Twitter, companies have requested us to do a thorough check of all social media platforms to see if any candidate’s name features in the list,” said the head of a Mumbai-based background screening firm requesting anonymity.
Not only do they want new joinees’ names to not feature on the list, companies also want background verification firms to keep a count on the number of reported incidents.
The person quoted above cited the instance of a large investor against whom multiple complaints had been posted on Facebook and Twitter. While the individual was to be appointed as a mentor in a mid-size e-commerce firm, a quick background check on social media made them change their decision.
Another new development is that companies that used to have a standard list of performers for their annual events also want to remove those accused in the MeToo movement.
The MeToo movement
MeToo is a movement against sexual harassment and sexual assault. American social activist Tarana Burke was the first one to use the term. This movement started off globally in October 2017 after the sexual misconduct allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein.
This found its way to India soon after a series of allegations against Mumbai-based stand-up comics surfaced on Twitter. Even prior to this, a list of alleged sexual offenders in the education sector was circulated on social platforms by students.
In October last year, after a series of allegations against celebrities like actor Nana Patekar cropped up, online activists started maintaining daily lists of offenders that was updated on a daily basis. Names of actors, journalists, advertising professionals as well as corporate executives emerged from these lists.
Sexual harassment is a crime in India as per Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013.
Small and big companies are taking cognisance of the complaints filed against executives for allegations by both employees and contractual labour. A deep dive by Moneycontrol showed that 616 cases of sexual harassment were filed across Nifty companies in FY18.
One good news is that only 2-4 percent of these complaints were pending at the end of FY18. So, while women are filing complaints, companies have been prompt in responding to these grievances.
Now, to ensure that no past offenders are employed, a wider background verification mechanism is being used. While a basic verification was always a part of the employment process, looking into MeToo allegations on social media is also a part of this process.
Apart from the allegations, detailed interactions between suspected offenders and victims are also being looked into. In a few cases, companies are also seeking legal opinion on whether the hire will be risky.
A senior lawyer specialising in transaction law said it is now crucial in companies with large private equity and venture capital firms globally to have ‘MeToo’ as a part of their investment contract. “Hiring anyone with dubious records could be a clear violation and can also have an impact on future investment decisions,” he added.
Any threat of misuse?
While a series of allegations were made on social media, a portion of those remain unsubstantiated. HR consultants said there is a threat of discrimination against those that may not have been an offender.
“A more robust mechanism for verification of the complaints made on social platforms is what background verification agencies are working on. Since several women have made anonymous allegations, it is a challenge to decide who is right and who is not,” added the India head of a global risk management firm.