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Khaitan associate leaves after concerns of how firm dealt with her sexual harassment complaint

Khaitan & Co faces allegation its POSH committee wasn’t up to scratch
Khaitan & Co faces allegation its POSH committee wasn’t up to scratch

A former Khaitan & Co associate has, in a 12-page resignation letter, expressed her concern about the internal prevention of sexual harassment (POSH) committee’s handling of her complaint against a fellow associate.

She wrote in her letter that the POSH committee members should be “made aware of the insensitivity, unprofessionalism and lapses of procedure that they have followed in my complaint”, and in light of the “unfortunate incidents and circumstances, I hereby ... submit my resignation to you”.

The resignation letter addressed to Mumbai partner Haigreve Khaitan, from May 2019, has gone somewhat viral in legal circles in the last week and narrates her version of events from late last year in detail, alleging harassment by a colleague in her team, based on his allegedly touching himself inappropriately in her presence while both were working late.

We won’t be sharing all details of the complaint here, due to confidentiality surrounding the process and parties, but suffice it to say, it appears to describe a prima facie case of workplace harassment.

The committee, which included a senior external member, as mandated under the law, concluded its inquiry by April.

It found - in-part based on an admission to the committee by the alleged perpetrator - that the conduct complained of had in fact happened. However, bearing in mind the complainant’s statement, it held that he had not intended to sexually harass her, basically chalking it up to the accused adjusting his shirt and trousers. The complainant disagreed in her letter, noting that “the law does not require establishing intent as a requirement of determining sexual harassment”.

While such cases can be notoriously hard to adjudicate, of particular concern to the firm in the letter having gone viral would be that her complaints of “lapses in the procedure of the POSH committee as per the firm’s policy” appear serious and hard to dismiss.

She noted in her letter that:

  1. the committee did not follow the law in its eventual findings, by making intent of the accused a relevant element,
  2. the committee allegedly violated natural justice and the firm’s policy by never asking her to provide a complaint in writing, which she only sent "suo moto" after the accused had made an official written statement to the committee in January 2019 (an earlier written statement by him made in December 2018 “was never forwarded/made available to me and was just shown to me briefly on a laptop”, also violating firm policy);
  3. the January 2019 written statement had only been “forwarded to me a mere 10 minutes before the meeting with the expectation from me to review his statement and [...] to cross examine him on basis of the statement”, she wrote. Due to this and point 2 above, this meant that she had not been provided with “fair opportunity to present my facts and claims or to rebut and highlight the discrepancies in [the accused’s] oral and written statements”, she added;
  4. she was allegedly never asked by the committee to send a list of witnesses, even though the accused was asked to submit such a list;
  5. the policy mandates notice of five days to the complainant of hearings. Instead, in January, she allegedly received an email from two partners who were part of the POSH committee, only 17 minutes before a relevant meeting; later in January, a second meeting was scheduled by one of the POSH committee partners only six minutes after receiving an email; later in February, an email was sent by the same partner that the third meeting in the case would be happening in the next one-and-a-half hours that same day, eventually only getting 10 minutes notice of the final meeting time (with the complainant’s statement attached); and
  6. when she allegedly confided in a partner after the incident, making explicit that the information was confidential, that partner had allegedly shared with the POSH committee “certain facts of my personal life, with certain facts to be incorrect” and “extremely irrelevant” to the proceedings.

She concluded in her letter that she hoped that:

my partners and this firm would ensure that someone who is motivated and committed towards their work shall not be put in such a hostile environment again and that the working environment in the firm is professional and friendly. I also hope that the members of the POSH committee are made aware of the insensitivity, unprofessionalism and lapses of procedure that they have followed in my complaint and I would like to believe that the next instance of a POSH complaint shall be dealt [with] in a proper and professional manner.

(The final paragraph of the letter also concluded on a positive note adding how appreciative she had been of the “mentorship and guidance” she had received from seniors, of the work done at the firm and how she had grown in her career at the firm).

Khaitan executive director of HR, Amar Sinhji, declined to comment on specifics, citing confidentiality obligations, but said: “As a firm we have all the required processes, checks & balances in place to deal with such issues.

“We ensure that they are dealt with in a completely unbiased and independent manner.

“These issues are internal to the firm and confidential under the applicable law. We have no further comments on the same.”

We have tried to reach out to the complainant for comment but have received no response.

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