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Of Mentors and Monsters

Anu Kumar (anukumar0811@gmail.com) is a writer and journalist based in the United States.

As the #MeToo movement reaches its moment of reckoning in India, this writer reflects on her workplace experience of coping with a “mentor” who was her harasser.

Thousands followed the suspense-filled drama over the United States (US) Supreme Court nomination, with Judge Brett Kavanaugh accused of sexual assault on Christine Blasey Ford, when they were high school students. Ford’s testimony before the US Senate judiciary committee evoked memories of nearly 27 years ago, when Anita Hill appeared before a similar committee in 1991 to make her own statements about sexual harassment against Judge Clarence Thomas, then to be nominated to the Supreme Court.

Thomas, like Kavanaugh, secured the nomination. Hill’s accusations didn’t stand a chance. Ironically, and in something of a just retribution, Hill is now one of the faces and a vocal spokesperson for the #MeToo movement.

The matter of sexual harassment is subjective and difficult to prove. It is subtle, persistent, and insidious. Besides, there is also the knowledge of being disbelieved, for the onus of proof is always on the victim, with the shame for having allowed it, of somehow being responsible, leaving the victim with a lasting sense of confusion.

Blame and shame stretch in many ways: What could the victim have done to prevent harassment? What exactly happened? How did things change, if they did at all, from camaraderie to harassment? And, as does happen in some circumstances in workplaces, how does one’s mentor become one’s harasser, and in the same breath, over several days, try and be a mentor again? The lines are blurred, and for any young person such a situation can be an ambiguous, treacherous terrain to traverse.

It was the late 1990s. In the four years since I had passed out of management school, I had not found a job that I liked. I finally found one that just seemed right: in the human resources (HR) department of one of India’s oldest newspapers. My first day was thrilling as I walked into the main office, down the central hallway, with walls lined by framed photos of old front pages showing decisive historical events. Everything about the place appeared to breathe the past.

Being in HR in the newspaper industry, then just about facing the threat of digitisation and television news, was indeed a difficult balancing act. It wasn’t a matter of just doing performance appraisals, figuring out competitive salary structures to retain prized journalists, or even sorting out grievances between journalists and other managers. There were also unpleasant tasks like marking out departments to axe, sections to downsize, and people to retrench, all to cut costs. In HR parlance, my boss, the senior-most in the HR department, called it “manpower planning,” all for “optimum efficiency.”

He knew better, I thought, and, of course, such things were good for the organisation. I also thought I knew my HR principles well, but not—as I figured out years later—how people worked, and how people related to each other. I thought that a well-functioning department meant that the boss led the department like a good captain. But, it wasn’t so in this instance.

My boss, with a team of assistant and deputy managers reporting to him, worked to subtly manipulate us against each other. In the beginning, for a week or a month, I would be assigned a task, and then it would be given or handed over, abruptly and quite casually, to someone else. I was then asked to do something more challenging. It flattered me at the time.

On other occasions, after a particularly sensitive interview with a department head who had no idea at the time that he might be retrenched soon (neither did I), my boss did not stand up or cover for me. I had only been told that the said department head would be moved to another department, a “routine transfer.”

During one-on-one meetings, my boss would talk to me about my other colleagues, emphasising the particularly close—almost paternal—relationships he had with them. For instance, he had given some advice to a colleague of mine, a married woman, who had been trying for a baby for years. He joked with another woman colleague about her breasts looking too big in a photograph. With my male colleagues, he would talk “dirty” man to man, as they told me.

I came to know much later that he would encourage us to report on each other, so he could keep tabs on everyone. He enjoyed having us agonise over who his current favourite of the week or the month was. At the time, I think none of us knew any better. All of us, then in our early or mid-20s, did think, quite naively, that he was simply being “one of us.”

Soon, within a few months in the organisation, I found myself floundering at my job. The constant transforming of my job role left me confused. The message subtly changed from my being asked to do more challenging tasks to my being “not good” enough for this or that project.

I realised he had an inkling of how vulnerable and diffident I felt, for a colleague must have reported it to him. That was when he, in a meeting behind closed doors, explained his intentions as wanting to “toughen me” up. And, soon, he went on to make more crude, uncouth, and suggestive remarks, watching my face as he did so. He had talked this way before light-heartedly, or so I had believed, but this was different.

I was shocked, but I was more bewildered and confused. Maybe, I really needed toughening up. After all, I had to make a go of a corporate career, else a hard secured management degree—something that had made my parents proud of me—would not be worth anything at all.

When I met him again, he alternated between being paternal and threatening me, his sentences veering between “I was trying to make you tough” to “Have you spoken to anyone about this?” I was allowed to leave the room with dire warnings to not divulge anything, that it would spoil the ­atmosphere of the department, that it was my attitude that had been a problem, and I must get on if I wanted to keep my job.

I did reach out to senior HR professionals who worked in other companies. These were people I sort of knew: those who had taught me during my business school days, those
I had interacted with, those I thought would understand and empathise with my predicament. But, I was to receive another lesson. One of them took my calls initially and then refused to take them. Another divulged that my boss’s behaviour was known in certain circles, and perhaps I should try and move out soon.

I was caught in a bind. A job move so very soon would affect my career. I had already been told this when I had moved five times in the space of four years, not having found a job I could really put my heart into. My boss for sure knew of this predicament the day he gave me my offer letter. He had a better sense of my vulnerabilities then, of how much I wanted this job to work for me.

For some days after this initial onslaught, he encouraged me as I went about my latest assignment, but I realised later that he simply didn’t interfere or provide any inputs, like any good boss might have. Later, he would use my slides to make his grand presentations, but I had left by then.

At times he asked me as to who I had left office with, and again peppered me with information about my colleagues, asking me about them in turn. I was so concerned about fitting in that I did let slip a colleague’s plans. My boss promised to keep that a secret and, of course, let me down. It was all a master game of manipulation.

When I had lost every friend in the department, thanks to my being an involuntary snitch, he took to advising me. At that time, I did feel isolated. He was amused at my “honesty,” at how I “showed” how I really felt. Everyone else, he advised, “wore a mask” or “enacted a role” at work, and that it was necessary to wear such deceptions, for only then could one succeed at work.

I did leave, as it is pretty much obvious now. But, that confusion—of blaming oneself, of figuring out just how much of a monster one’s harasser can be, or rather, how much in turn a “pretend mentor” and “monster harasser” they can be—lasted for years.

The Supreme Court’s Vishaka Guidelines (passed in 1998) laying down stipulations to curb sexual harassment in the workplace were too new. I had no option but to leave, with ignominy, confusion, and worry. It also left a lingering diffidence, a constant questioning of one’s abilities and self-doubt that took years to heal. Perhaps, these are things that remain still.

 

Updated On : 15th Oct, 2018

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