Thursday, January 10, 2013

Keeping up with the 6:30 pm deadline

It is not the best way to start a new year with such a post. But perhaps I should feel good knowing that my grey cells don’t seem to have degenerated and I still have a perspective on life. So here goes.

Recently, I received two guidance emails from our administration team pertaining to women’s safety. One of them contained a presentation about how women can defend themselves when faced with potentially dangerous situations, and the other provided a list of phone numbers and other measures (details on cabs, escorts etc) provided by the company to ensure women’s safety.

While I appreciated the content of these emails (although partially plagiarized and in poor English, the information was useful), I was apprehensive about the seriousness of their intent. I have three fundamental issues-

1. Why single out women? – While acknowledging that crime against women has risen in the last decade thanks to poor conviction rates for the accused, one also needs to look at the big picture. Among various urban crime, incidence of rape (as a percentage of crime) features significantly lower that other crimes under the IPC such as theft, murder, burglary, kidnapping, robbery and trade of counterfeit/ illegal (Source: National Crime Records Bureau). At the very least, it indicates that men are perhaps as susceptible to crime as women, and perhaps more ill equipped to deal with it. If that is the case, why not extend these facilities for safe travel and tips on self defense to men as well? Why should anyone stay in office after 6:30 pm, if human life (male and female) can be at risk?

If circumstances warrant that employees have to work odd hours (such as in BPO), companies must provide alternate options for work to continue, besides providing a secure commute and work place environment in case they wish to work from office. I know offices where coffee machines and air conditioning are switched off after 6:00 pm and choices for dinner are restricted to Maggi noodles and Kurkure.

2. Is there a choice? – A friend facing a personal emergency had to wait for one week before she was approved to work from home. It took two more days for her to get the necessary devices for connectivity. I have also heard of male friends complaining about putting in extra time on projects because women on the team leave by 6:30 pm, and have no means to connect to the project from home because clients don’t approve such requests fearing rise in project costs. While that seems a lot like baloney, it most likely is true. Most organisations don’t provide alternatives for women (or men) to work odd hours because it is much simpler that way (for the organization).

However, by doing so, they wrongly position safety as an exclusive privilege for women, and find other ways to penalize them for their limited absence from work. Their names do not figure in any appreciation emails, nor do they get salary hikes and promotions on par with someone who was present post 6:30 pm. “It is unfair to the person who has stayed beyond 6:30”, was what an HR professional told me.

How about tweaking the performance evaluation system in a way that does not place emphasis on physical presence? Further, why not educate the client that working remotely would not impact the project cost or quality?

As a mother of a toddler I often ask myself this question – Will working from home a few days in a month impact my career progression? I don’t have a clear answer but I usually tend to go with a mental “Yes” and pack my bags to leave for office.

3. How reliable are these measures? – About a year ago, I heard of an incident where a female employee was dragged by strangers in her office parking lot as she approached her car, about 300 m from the main building. She managed to shout, and get the attention of the security guard, and eventually escaped an attempt on her life and dignity. This organization had drafted safety measures for women employees, owing to a recent spate in rapes against working women in that city. Unfortunately their efforts seemed stuck there– in the draft stage. The parking lot was ill lit and when she requested the security to walk her some distance to the car, he apparently asked her “Are you sure? Why?”. That left her with little choice but to make the journey herself. A year on, I heard that this organization has floated similar guidelines owing to the recent Delhi rape case. Only upon testing some of those frameworks can one know how effective they are.

Most offices are no different. They provide hotlines with recorded messages, give mobile numbers that people cannot reach, and do not conduct mock drills or sensitize employees (male and female) to the risks they can face. In most cases the women’s safety initiative is the responsibility of the general administration team, who are already burdened with various other routine work. Can we expect them to be reasonably equipped to deal with any distress calls? Little wonder then that many employees rarely read these safety measures before trashing them from their inbox.

It is important that companies take cognizance of recent developments in the country and take relevant action. But these actions, if taken for cosmetic purposes, will not yield long term results and create a positive work environment.