For Wipro, is rape & murder a Sigma Six number?

ASHWINI A. writes from Bangalore: Saturday, November 3, was the last day at work for Jyoti Chowdhary. It was also the last day on the planet for the 21-year-old. The Wipro BPO employee was raped and murdered in Poona by the driver of a cab that Wipro had hired. An accomplice was with him.

While Jyoti’s friends and family, and the City she had made her home, were grappling with the tragedy, Wipro executives quickly swung into overdrive, working out an elaborate watertight strategy to defend the company from any allegations of neglect and/or dereliction of duty.

And to drive home how robust their processes were.

Soon after the incident, Wipro issued a boilerplate statement mourning Jyoti’s death and recalling her contribution to the company. So far, so good. It was only when Wipro BPO president T.K. Kurien addressed the media later that evening that the true colours of the “Numbers Obsessed Modern Indian Company” shone through.

Even from this distance, everything Kurien did and said was outrageous, obnoxious and positively insulting to Jyoti and the thousands of other Wipro employees looking for reassurances of their safety from their bossman.

Let me start with the way Kurien appeared in his weekend best: cheerful, carefree, and with a devil-may-care enthusiasm. Maybe that’s his default mode. But with a young girl’s life cruelly snuffed out? Kurien appeared smug and happy that the company’s seemingly well-rehearsed cliche-ridden defence intended to deflect any imputations of culpability seemed to be working so well.

Oh yes, Kurien did have a swagger—just that he was not walking.

Kurien’s on-air behaviour would have been normal except that he forgot that the occasion was to explain the circumstances and take questions on the rape and murder of a young employee, not to announce the gravity-defying quarterly performance of his company.

The media asked the right questions. How did Wipro allow the cab driver to have an accomplice, that too without a badge? What did the company do after they got to know of the incident? What does the company do to check antecedents of cab drivers they hire to ferry employees? Etcetera.

In response, Kurien glibly reeled out what seemed clearly like a much-photocopied company document in the event of such incidents. He pointed out how foolproof their processes were about employees travelling by cabs. How they have an ongoing education programme on personal safety and precautions. Etcetera.

So much so, that in his enthusiasm to perform with panache in front of the cameras, the Wipro BPO president even got the name of his employee wrong.

He called her Pratibha, instead of Jyoti.

A small, Freudian slip, maybe, but how many employees die in the line of duty that a company chief, most of whom can remember the details of company results down to the third decimal point, can’t even give a dead girl (and her grieving family) a modium of dignity in death?

Kurien also pointed out—proudly, repeatedly—that the cabs that Wipro hires, do more than 5 million pickups and drops every year.

What is that supposed to mean?

That it is not a such a big deal if one such pickup goes wrong?

That even rape and murder meets a Sigma Six standard in Wipro? (Sigma Six=3.4 defects per million.)

What was disgusting in the entire tamasha was that far from showing any sympathy or compassion about the death of a young employee, Kurien seemed to suggest that it was not Wipro’s problem that Jyoti got into the cab and invited trouble.

It was, after all is said and done, Jyoti’s fault!

Kurien’s tone, tenor and body language were absolutely offensive. He seemed to enjoy interacting with the media though he had no answers to several pointed questions.

IT India’s attitude (through Wipro’s via Kurien’s on-air demeanour) to the death of a young employee raise some simple questions:

# Are employees so dispensable to BPO companies?

# Where does such an insensitive and inhuman attitude to human lives stem from?

# Are processes more important than people?

# And of what use are “world class, water tight processes” if they cannot stop rape and murder?

More importantly, is such a nonchalant attitude all that its slaving employees can expect from a brand-leader like Wipro which employs thousand of people, most of them young women?

# Is this a reflection of corporate arrogance, immaturity or plain incompetence?

# Can companies be allowed to wash their hands off such incidents by saying it’s the cab companies’ fault, not theirs?

# Don’t they have any responsibility to employees and to society at large?

“Bodycount,” is a buzzword in IT, ITES and BPO companies. Do the rapes and murders of female workers, give the word a new meaning? After all it’s not all that difficult to replace one body with another.

Is it?

Or is it?