Stories about sexual harassment and murky shenanigans are not that unusual in the NGO world. And why should they be? These are human failings. TERI is dealing with allegations against its high-profile head RK Pachauri as well. But they come at a particularly inopportune time for Greenpeace India whose plate is already full and whose coffers are under severe strain.
An ex-staffer has alleged that a colleague insisted she sleep in his hotel suite during an official visit to Hyderabad. He also tried to force-feed her birthday cake despite her discomfort. What’s even more damning, she says, is the organization took little to no action when she registered a complaint. And that members of the Internal Complaints Committee made her feel at fault for not knowing how to “set boundaries”.
This is tricky territory. By not going to the police or the employers, but choosing to write about her experiences on a blog, the stage is set for a trial by media where the burden of proof is much lower. The public has to just choose which side they want to believe. And those lambasting, Greenpeace because they think it’s a meddlesome organization, which is against India’s “national” interests will be happy to latch on to this as more proof of their perfidy.Later she says she was raped by a male colleague who found her unconscious after a party. Already burned by her experience with reporting the sexual harassment she did not report the rape to the police or her employers. “How could I when the process had failed me already?” she writes.
Greenpeace has tried to defend itself, issuing an apology on its website and admitting that the cases “should have been handled in a better way.” The ICC has been reconstituted and is doing an audit of old cases. The implicated employee resigned after a strong warning and Greenpeace admits, “The victim deserves both an apology and a meticulous examination of what happened.”
But this points to a larger malaise which NGOs would do well to note. Bigger companies have a more standardized HR protocol in place to deal with these issues when they crop up within the organization. We have all rolled our eyes at sexual harassment courses and modules but they are there for a reason – to establish a protocol. A smaller NGO often does not have the bandwidth to do it or even worse assumes that it has no need for such “bureaucracy” because it sits on a higher moral pedestal anyway.
There is this idea that “NGO work” is driven by a moral sense of purpose rather than just the impetus to draw a paycheck. That’s one of the reasons it’s often poorly paid, especially down the ranks. The job satisfaction is in the work, not necessarily the salary. But it also puts, rather unfairly, a greater burden of probity on an NGO as compared to some mining company. A sexual harassment scandal in a company, that is anyway accused of driving tribals off their ancestral land by hook or by crook, is news but that same scandal in a Greenpeace becomes evidence of hypocrisy.
When iGate Corp fired its CEO Phaneesh Murthy over the claim of sexual harassment and a relationship with a subordinate in 2013, it emerged that in 2002 he had to quit Infosys after being charged with a sexual harassment suit by an American employee that resulted in a $3 million out-of-court settlement. It was a scandal but did not invite charges of hypocrisy and double standards of corporations who preached one thing and did another.
An NGO, unfortunately, like Caesar’s wife has to be above suspicion. It’s unfair in many ways that it has to be held to a higher standard but that comes with the territory. When you are in the business of finger wagging at others, you always run the risk of others being eager to point their fingers back at you. And an NGO like Greenpeace has far more powerful enemies than a mining company or a tech company.
If anything this case should be a wake up call to other NGOs that at the very least they need to have a robust mechanism in place for dealing with these situations internally. Sexual harassment can happen in any workplace. It’s how an organization deals with it when a complaint crops up that’s really important. Ultimately the biggest asset an NGO has it not its balance sheet or share price but its reputation.
The Indian government crackdown on Greenpeace and the sexual harassment scandal currently rocking the NGO have nothing to do with each other. But the timing is a PR nightmare for the already embattled NGO. Its battle for survival in India will not be helped by the irony of Greenpeace local management appearing lackadaisical about dirty goings on at home while wagging its finger at corporations and governments for polluting the environment at large.
People who live in greenhouses should not be throwing stones.