What’s greater- Cost of life or cost of reputation?

While corporate India 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 headed communications and corporate affairs at Tata Steel until he quit the company in April. He was found dead in his house in suburban Mumbai last Friday, allegedly having committed suicide. Deshpande, who spent his career in some prominent organisations, is remembered by friends and colleagues as a calm and calculative individual, who was always in control of the situation. The rash decision to end his life, therefore, came as a shock for many.

Deshpande’s ex-colleague, Salil Tripathi, writes in LiveMint 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 trapped in Jamshedpur for a while. It is not uncommon to hear about employees complaining about stress at the workplace. Workplace surveys released across the last couple of months 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 which originates from higher-order conflicts such as values and ethics is more impactful and can make manager and 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. Tata constituted a probe committee on July 3 to investigate if there was any role of the employer leading to 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 release.

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 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?”

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