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Web of life



Stuck in the web of life, trying to navigate our way, together but alone, confounded but determined, wondering about the meaning of life or fighting to reach some unknown destinations, absorbing and disseminating each other’s thoughts and energy along the way.

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Rewards and incentives for women at workplace

Rewards only for Men

I don’t want to outperform ever.

I am sure that’s not the response organizations expect from their top performers. But if a top performer happens to be woman, it might not be that surprising.

I was rewarded for my performance once with a trip to Thailand. I had a horrible time.

She said in a tone of absolute disappointment and disgust. Even though the location was selected and schedule was designed with a clear intent to ‘reward employees’, it didn’t feel like a reward to her. The trip included a series of events designed for high testosterone misogynistic men – strip clubs, massages with happy ending and ‘special’ shows. She was the only woman in a group of almost 70 men, mainly sales and marketing teams including her seniors. Even they were uncomfortable with her presence. They would have been happier if she wasn’t invited.

Every single one of them came back happy from the trip, high on their holiday and motivated to fight again in the market and perform. One employee came back unhappy, angry and demotivated.

“It was a hypocritical reward.” 

It was not a reward for her. Even for men, it was an unacceptable reward.

  1. It was an embarrassing series of 4 days with her colleagues with no escape.
  2. Not one event or a tangible gift was designed for her. (I wonder if HR organizing team tried to include strip tease by male dancers.)
  3. She is expected to come back and work with these men somehow hoping that they would treat women better in their workplace.

Why should I get that as a good performer? And what are you telling me with this? Are you expecting me to ask for men as rewards because I performed well?

Why should this be a reward? If you have done something nice, let’s go and get some women for you; let’s go to strip clubs for your pleasure. Women are the gifts for everyone who performed well. Why is the company HR paying to tell men to enjoy women? How can you objectify women as a prize?” She expressed her anger and frustration to everyone including HR. There were no answers and no resolutions.

At the core of it was a very simple question. ‘How do I expect them to come back and treat me and other women in office better after they have just been told that women are objects and gifts for good performance?’

“Why should this be a part of company event?

It isn’t about sex. It isn’t about denying that men or women have sexual desires. It’s not about imposing her values on everyone else around her. We need to look beyond this obvious layer. She did not say at any point that sex is a problem or shameful.

There are two fundamental issues with the process of these rewards.

  1. A Woman being treated as ‘rewards’ and ‘gifts’ is a problem. The very premise kills the foundations of civilized society. It encourages violent behaviour towards women. It makes it acceptable to treat women as pleasure objects. Women are stripped away of their humanity with encouragement of this practice. There are valid options for fulfilling sexual desires that include consent, willingness or equal desire by both members.
  2. A company paying for events encouraging men to act on their pre-civilization primitive instincts with complete disregard to humanity of women makes it ‘normal’ and ‘acceptable’. It legitimizes the objectification of women. “My male colleagues could have done what they wanted in their own time with their money. Why should this be a part of company event?

“Yes, I complained to HR. No, they didn’t do anything.”

She complained to HR when she came back. They did the same thing next year. It was then the turn of another female colleague to be the only woman amongst a set of 70 men high on free alcohol in a company party where scantly clad young girls performed for their pleasure. “I had nowhere to go. I had to deal with it”. She was in a foreign country for a company event. And why should she split and be on her own in the hotel room or in the city? It was supposed to be a holiday, not a punishment. Locations for these events changed but the schedule remained the same.

“We weren’t rewarded with something that feels like a reward.”

Are women simply ignored when rewards are planned? Is there an expectation of low or average performance from women? Did organizations not expect women to perform better or they just ignored the evolution of workforce dynamics over the years? Do organizations care enough about welcoming women to workplace and investing in their growth similar to their male counterparts?

It appears that most versions of rewards and incentives are designed keeping men in mind. But even small gifts aimed to build teams and positive communities within a workplace seem to ignore female gender. Most employee gifts are commonly sourced. “All t-shirts at company events given to us and that we were forced to wear were men’s size, cut and designs. We had to deal with it. How difficult is it to get that right?

How are we talking about creating inclusive workplaces even if small things connecting employees to their organizations are designed only for men?

The Other story

I wondered if this is a common story across organizations or an isolated case of lapse in judgment by one company or one organizing team. I had to question if there is another side to this story that I don’t have access to.

I spoke to a few acquaintances from the corporate world and the ones who exist on the fringes like events and advertising.

I heard a different language. They vehemently disagreed with this. “Most of our clients are very strict about it. It’s not even entertained as a topic of discussion.

One employee of a large sales organization pointed out that Thailand has recently been banned as a destination for all internal employee events. As a recipient of a couple of reward holidays during his time in sales and marketing, he had a different story to share. While it’s true that most reward events have very few women employees, the official itinerary or events don’t include anything offensive to women. However, the sales incentive programs for business partners or distributors sometimes include events that could be objectionable.

Shouldn’t the same rules or standards apply for these events also?

Rewards and incentives for external partners and internal employees are intertwined in sales organizations. The incentive events or dealers’ meets also include employees from sales and marketing teams.

After listening to other stories, it appeared that many organizations have strict code of conduct with respect to internal employee events but not necessarily for external partners. It was a grey area. In one discussion, a female sales employee mentioned, “the ‘shady’ dealers meet are a thing of past; it doesn’t happen anymore.” Most were ambiguous or doubtful about the sales events for external partners and even the sales process.

This raises a parallel debate on the process of sales, business development and partner incentives.

We cannot look at rewards in isolation. The sales process itself packages the ‘special benefits’ with commercial success. In case of B2B scenario, it’s an incentive to influence purchase decisions. In case of B2C products, it’s a part of the incentive program for dealers and other significant supply chain partners.

During a couple of conversations, objectionable sales practices were pointed out. In a few organizations, sales representatives are expected to entertain their clients with facilitating sexual favours or accompany them to strip clubs. Company is not only paying for this but also encouraging the practice by forcing employees to actively participate. It was unclear if it was coerced by just a handful of senior employees or it was a widespread sales practice across the organization or industry. During my conversations, I heard this story about two different organizations.

I had to ask if this was raised as an issue because of cultural context of few individual’s life story and perspective. Could there be exaggeration of events in the mind of these individuals? When I heard a couple of more stories about global organizations, I didn’t find anything different.

It’s a multi-layer widespread practice and seeped deep into the system. But at the heart of it remains the fundamental question of respect for women at workplace and hence the efforts made to welcome or include women. If the messaging is that women can be bought and sold as pleasure objects for men, then how do we expect men in these organisations to treat their women colleagues with respect and work with them as equals? If the external partner incentive program includes strip tease and more, how do we expect them to respectfully work with women sales teams of the company? On a side note, it’s another layer of discouragement for women to aspire for career in sales.

Where do we go from here?

I have no way of knowing if these stories are true to reality or if they are exaggerated versions triggered by heightened emotions. But the conversations with various members of the environment were layered with tones of anger or apology or resignation. The problem is real. Some organizations seem to have addressed it head on; some have taken initial tiny steps. While it’s encouraging to know that conversations have happened and relevant actions have been taken in some parts of the industry, it’s also important to acknowledge the comfort with which we accept and allow it go on everywhere else.

How do we begin to address the concern? There are some easy answers and some not-so-easy ones. Here are a few thoughts that can be considered.

  • Recruit more women: It’s a simple first step. A diverse workforce brings with it heightened sensitivity and empathy. A diverse team can also create better market solutions with more perspectives.
  • Get the t-shirts right: Small tokens shared with the teams to create a sense of belonging to a community cannot exclude a section of employees. Small gifts and incentives need to be fair and inclusive. It’s a small cost and small effort.
  • Redesign rewards: There are multiple ways a reward can be made more meaningful and relevant for all team members. To begin with, be more inclusive and sensitive to the program content to build an inclusive workplace and avoid larger repercussions to the society.
  • External partner programs: Organizations have the ability and power to influence the larger ecosystem and society. As pointed out by one sales manager, ‘the dealers are happy even with an international trip; the program content doesn’t make them more loyal or connected to the company.’ There is no reason for the company to spend money on objectionable programs or events.
  • Sensitize teams on values: It’s necessary to have an open dialogue with employees about organization culture and values. It’s crucial to consciously create a code of conduct.
  • Monitor sales process and practices closely: While revenue is the prime driving force, organizations need to be careful of the unethical and objectionable practices by the sales force and build strict standards.

Society hasn’t changed. So why should businesses?’ Someone pointed this out during the discussion and further added, ‘this is a reflection of society; you can’t change this.’ With this mindset, human society would never have evolved. We are far ahead in time from the primitive societies. We can define new rules that serve us better today. Businesses with organized workforce have the ability to influence the face of new society. Organizations are made up of people and therefore reflect society. But they are also structured institutions with their own identity and goals. Their workforce follows strict rules and code of conduct to work together for the company vision. They are mini-societies in themselves with their own defined set of behaviour patterns. With organized workforce forming a bigger part of our society, they can influence thought patterns and make a larger impact to communities around them.



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My travel notes: Anonymity vs Familiarity


Last month I went to Hong Kong. Alone. It was not scary, not exciting, not boring, not fun. I explored a new place and I learnt a bit more about myself. That was all. And that was a lot.

I have traveled alone for work before. I have traveled with strangers. I have traveled with distant acquaintances. I would never let go of an opportunity to travel and explore a new place. I would always find company or learn to get along with anybody willing to travel. I had never before planned and visited a new country alone with the explicit purpose of vacation. It almost happened by mistake this time. As always, I grabbed the chance to see a new place, even if it meant spending 4 days with myself alone, lost in a city of people who spoke a different language. I loved the experience.

I liked the vibrancy and colors of Hong Kong… even the crowd. I was a no one in a sea of people… no one significant enough to be judged or even looked at. No one cared. I was a local from day one. I was clearly an odd one out with my very Indian looks and different skin colour, features and clothing style. But no one turned around to look or question ‘who is this stranger amongst us’… a look I got quite often in other countries and even different regions of my own country. Since it’s a big city with good infrastructure and public transport system, it was easy for me to find my way and survive with minimum interaction with people.

There is a certain comfort in anonymity. No one bothers me or considers me a threat basis stereotypes… No one tries to take advantage of the innocent newcomer unfamiliar with the ways of their habitation… No one looks down upon me to mistreat me. I am a no one. I am just another face in the crowd.

In that anonymity, I found surprisingly pleasant moments of being a tiny something in the web of humanity and life. Being a nobody with no past, no name, no achievements, no dreams and no identity is liberating. It is not a blow to the ego. It’s a realization of the insignificance of ego. And in those moments, nothing matters. No failure or success, no pain of a love lost or joy of family and friends, no insults, no honours… No part of one’s social existence has a meaning.

I have traveled alone often in my country. I used to love the process of discovery and being with myself. Sometimes I would stride the streets of an unknown town with a purpose of the task at hand and sometimes just walk around aimlessly. The curiosity of being in a new place and meeting new people kept me excited and gave me joy. Somewhere over the years, I lost it with more trips including pre-planning given the visa requirements or the widespread availability of information through Internet or wrong travel partners.

After a short spell of despondency in my life, I found myself presented with an opportunity to be in Hong Kong alone. I took it up. Once I was in the city, it reminded me of my earlier days of liberation when I had just started traveling often and far. I remembered why I love travel and what I missed in life.

After I came back to India, I made my second solo trip within a week to a small town in Kerala. I confined myself to a 2km area for exploration and relaxation. I realized by evening that everyone in town could remember my face, where I stayed and which shops I visited. I was this tourist who looked unfamiliar and could be helped or scammed into paying more money for worthless touristy products.

There were awkward smiles and hellos. People laughed when I did something ridiculous like expected restaurant to be open half an hour before lunchtime. Some went out of their way to direct me to the right path when I was lost.

I was aware of the concepts of embarrassment, sympathy, respect and suspicion. I was identified, observed and therefore made aware of my presence.

It was a pleasant trip as well but there was a certain discomfort in being aware of my identity. Somehow I liked the feeling of being a nobody where no one questioned me where I am from or what I do… where I could be anything and nothing.

Small towns are warm and beautiful. Big cities are cold and often enough filthy. Small towns hold lessons in love. And big cities teach humility. Small towns make you assert your social identity. Big cities let you melt away in the web of humanity.