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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.

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Those little things – babies and memories

One of the side effects of turning 30 is the massive number of babies around you. It’s endearing and annoying in equal parts. Almost all of my friends, acquaintances and colleagues have a child or two. A whole bunch of them were born recently. I have witnessed some of them grow old, heard their stories and seen their numerous pictures and videos. And it’s exhausting. I just can’t seem to share the same amount of excitement about babies and children as their parents do.

There is no denying the fact that babies are cute, with their little hands and feet, big eyes on soft little chubby faces and smiling pink lips. They can be fun when they start growing old. The kids have a pure soul and a beautiful positive energy. But I am not sure if I enjoy their company.

The obsessive parents are more difficult to deal with. Their stories usually just start with ‘my son’ or ‘my daughter’. Gradually, a name is introduced to the conversation. For a brief while, a name is the only connection I would have with the child. In some cases, I don’t even remember the name or the gender. There are so many of them around me that I lost track. With passing time, however, those names begin to take shape into a person with a set of preferences and a distinct character. It feels like I know each of them intimately through the animated stories told by the parents with a joyful spark in their eyes.

The little stories of the little ones follow the same pattern but the colors change as per the personality each baby takes on while growing up. The stories of sleepless nights taking care of the babies turn into the stories of their charming naughty acts and then move to the apparently difficult school management. One fine day I realized I am not indifferent anymore. Most of the stories are still boring and repetitive. But suddenly the main character has a name and a personality. Without actually being there, I saw them grow old. I became a small insignificant part of their story… as a member of the audience. It can get overwhelming. I still have phases of indifference. My interest in babies varies depending on my mood.

The intriguing part of this experience is the reflection on the concept of time and aging. My life hasn’t changed much in the last 12 years or so. I have had my share of fun and adventure. I have had periods of movements and a variety of interesting experiences. But the essence hasn’t changed much. So my sense of time and my own aging has been twisted. But when I see a child who was a little baby three years back, I realize the extent of power three years can have on us and everything around us.

This feeling and sense of time might have been present on some level in my life. But I felt it strongly only last week. I had been shopping for the last two months for two of my dear friends who are expecting babies. I took that long because I don’t really know much about babies or pregnancy and I am not quite sure what would make a good gift for an expecting mother and a baby. But I know my friends well. So the thought of an appropriate gift would often wander to my memories with them. What would she like for her baby? How would she like to decorate the room of her baby? What kind of clothes she would like her baby to wear? What kind of fun activities she would do with her baby? I didn’t make a structured list of such potential questions and answers. But when I was in any shop looking for an appropriate gift, my thoughts would go to the mother as much as to the baby.

I didn’t realize this pattern of thoughts until last week. When I finished buying everything, I sat down to pack my gifts. My work table was overflowing with gift items and sundry packing material. I was admiring my packing skills; feeling elated at the choice of my gifts and wondering how my friends might react to these. In that moment, I realized the time and age we have covered together.

I still remember when we were young girls and I would hear them talk about love. I would occasionally give my views even though I had no experience of a stable relationship. I still don’t have any but that’s another story for another time.

I met one of them at 18 and another one at 23. It feels like a different lifetime. How much we have changed and grown since then! I remember the long morning and evening walks where we discussed love and life; and our opinion of men and relationships. I remember the time when they fell in love and when they decided to get married. Both of them are now expecting a baby. I can’t seem to let go of the image of their younger version. They are still full of life. But now they are also to-be-mothers.

Very often you don’t see your own life pass by. The time becomes real only when you enter a new phase of life. And sometimes you become aware of the passing time when your near and dear ones enter a new phase of life.

I feel an uncanny sense of joy with the very thought of them holding their little ones. The memories of the times to come will be as precious as the memories of the times that went by. Those little things suddenly made me see time and life in a new light.


Posted in Travel, Uncategorized

My travel notes: Providence

I always wanted to see the snow. I don’t know why it fascinated me so. It was a dream that eluded me for almost three decades. I traveled to destinations where snow falls in abundance but the timing was never quite right.

I finally saw it in a small European village right out of a picture postcard. It looks like the place where they shoot pictures for holiday cards. It’s more beautiful than the dreams and the childhood fantasy land.

You can see the whole village from the train station. Our hotel address was only a house number. There was no street name or block number. Information center at the train station gave us a map of the region and pointed us in the direction of the house. There didn’t seem any need for public transportation. We walked.

It was raining which further added to the beauty of the village. Clouds also meant a need for alteration in our plans. We expected to cycle around the nearby villages, sit by the lake in bright sunshine and enjoy the view of the scenic landscape from a viewpoint up in the mountains which can be reached by a cable car.

The hotel owner informed us in a very disappointed voice that we will not be able to see anything from there because of snow. We can only visit the ice caves at the first cable car stop. The second stop is accessible but we can’t walk up to the view point.

To his surprise, I jumped up in excitement because I wanted to see the snow.

We dropped our luggage and immediately left. The ice caves were spectacular. The beauty of frozen ice inside caves was accentuated by the artificial lighting effects. By the time we reached back to the cable car station for our way ahead, our bodies were tired, spirits high and the heart still longing for snow fall. However we were too late. It was around 4:30 pm and the last cable car down from the high point was at 5 pm. The operator refused to take us up there because the view point was about 30 min away on foot and we would be stranded up there. So near yet so far.

We went back to the downhill cable station. While we waited for the cable car, an old man appeared out of nowhere and took the bench next to us. He looked a lot like Santa Claus without the red suit. He greeted us and asked where we are from. My friend replied, ‘India’. He said, ‘you should see the snow up there’. We told him it’s too late now and enquired how long it might take. He said he just came back from there and it took only 4 min. ‘You should go’, he said again.

After a moment’s hesitation, we made an impulse decision to take our chances. We ran back to the uphill station. The operator told us again that ‘you will need to be back by 5 and you won’t be able to go to the viewing point’. We went nevertheless.

It was snowing up there. We stayed near the station exit for about ten min. It was eerily quiet with an occasional noise of a machine being operated nearby. Everything was white. I felt soft light snowflakes falling on my hands and hair. I looked up at the snow falling from nowhere in particular. It was white and misty. A sense of absolute purity, beauty and peace set in. It was mesmerizing.

I finally saw the snowfall… by coincidence… a series of unplanned events… on an unexpected day… in an impulsive moment.

The old man was gone by the time we came back. I can’t help but wonder where did he come from and why in a 5-second conversation, he told us about the snow.


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My travel notes: The artist

She is an Austrian artist, currently based in a small touristy town in Eastern Europe. She sits on the sidewalk of a small uphill road running up to a proud fortress from the 11th century. She paints little miniature paintings of the fortress and other popular tourist destinations of the city. She describes her miniature artistic impressions of the fortress in great detail along with the significance of every little ledge protruding from the grey wall. She talks even more passionately about her flower paintings. Every flower she paints has a special significance. The story of each flower and its medicinal properties is even more impressive than the painting. The beauty of some paintings is enhanced further by philosophical little quotes written below in her beautiful artistic handwriting. There is a line from the poem written by her and a few others by famous philosophers from Europe and China. While she tells you about the therapeutic properties of some flowers, she throws in a line about the technique used for making the painting.
She pulls her torn jacket close to her body to protect herself from cold. But her eyes never leave you, except when she tells you about the political conditions of the country and treatment of women and artists. The wisdom of her light blue eyes, partly hidden by old specs, is deeply enhanced by her wrinkled face and warm smile. She can talk about art, history, medicine, yoga, philosophy and social perils with equal flair.

She sits at the steps of a grand ancient fortress in a beautiful European city, painting all day long, hoping to sell her miniature artistic impressions of the city, it’s spirit and her favorite flowers in an attempt to make some money for food and warm clothes, and happy to share her life story with anyone willing to listen to her.

She has great wisdom gathered over many years from books, her mother and her personal life experiences. She has strong political and social views. She is there only for a few more days. Once winter arrives, she has to find another place to sit, paint and sell her paintings. She dreams of writing a book with medicinal properties of flowers which few know of. She plans to migrate to another country, hopefully warmer, to continue her work.

I don’t know if her work is painting, medicine or philosophy. I don’t know if she has any family. She says she lives with a friend. She says the treatment of women artists in her country is unfair. I don’t know what gives her hope and what is the source of life in her.

But her story makes me wonder about the condition of women and poor in a rich country.

Posted in Spirituality, Uncategorized

Don’t seek the halo

Sometimes I wonder if people seek the halo of enlightened being more than the knowledge itself. I often meet people with the ‘desire’ of knowing everything there is to know… not for the quintessential curiosity of a human or the joy of learning but for the tag of ‘wise’, ‘knowledgeable’ and ‘enlightened’. In a pure competitive spirit, they want to be ahead of everyone else on a similar path.

I tried to make sense of this behavior but didn’t quite understand. I also fell for the trap. But I was able to pull back soon enough. I am always in a learning mode. And for one brief interaction with someone, I turned that off and allowed pride to take over.

My yoga teacher once mentioned in a class, ‘don’t seek the halo’. And just like that, many pieces of the puzzle fell in place. Many of us seek the halo… not the knowledge.

Spiritual quest is an equally common phenomenon as the material pursuit. The path follows similar emotional phases… ambition, arrogance, ego, envy, pride. Ironically, an essential requirement to reach the next level of spiritual evolution is to transcend these emotions or negative energy spirals.

Most of us pass through this journey anyway. I don’t have an answer for why the beings on spiritual journey get caught up in the negative emotions or why most of them are not even aware of it or accept it. I don’t have a guide book on how to transcend this pattern. I don’t know if most of us go through all the emotions or some of these. I don’t know how many of us can leave them behind within a few moments and how many take years. I know that not a lot of us are aware of it. I know that one of the earlier stages of learning involves being aware. So my question really is that if you are on the journey of spiritual upliftment and you are apparently more evolved than most others, then how is it that you are not even aware of your emotions and the games your mind is playing with you?

I don’t know answers to any of this. I know that it’s important to be aware. It’s extremely important to be aware of the emotions playing behind your behavior and interactions with others. Only then can you reach a stage where you can transcend it. When you identify you are falling in the trap, try to come out. Inhale the purity of that moment.

Don’t make spiritual wisdom your life’s ambition. Don’t let the arrogance and ego challenge your humility. Don’t let the envy enter in your relationship with guides and friends who can help you grow. Don’t let pride blind you.


On your spiritual journey, you will cross milestones where you know more than earlier; where you feel you know more than others; where you feel privileged. And in that moment remember to check the ego. You don’t want the halo. The moment of pride will take you back many steps in your journey towards wisdom.

Don’t seek the halo.

Posted in Spirituality, Uncategorized

Beware of the halo


Do good and forget it. We grew up listening to the metaphors and stories of selfless acts. We were taught, ’be selfless’ and ‘don’t cash in the act of goodness’. We remember the phrases and idioms but not the lesson. Most of us don’t remember. There are very few evolved beings that are able to practice it with a purity that can’t be defined by language.

We have evolved to be selfish. We are designed to think about self for self-preservation and promotion. There is no judgment here. It’s an important trait that allowed us to survive… that allowed us to reach this evolved state where our brains have the capability to contemplate this and all other abstract things like this.

The problem is when selfless becomes a state of achievement… when selfless becomes a desired label… when goodness is measured, appreciated and rewarded. Selfless is not a natural state for most of us. It probably is for a few evolved beings. But for most of us, either the idea is unnatural, revolting or simply aspirational. Whether or not we accept it in public but being good is not always just about being good. It’s about being acknowledged as good.

We are seeking a halo. We are seeking applause and approval. In that sense we are no different from many others who are a part of the rat race and seek materialistic rewards and strive to stay ahead in a competitive environment. The difference with these set of individuals is that we are standing on a different stage on a different pedestal performing different acts in front of the same audience hoping for more love and higher accolades for being good.

Do good and forget it. Be aware of the sense of pride and arrogance… and kill it as soon as it appears. Beware of the fake halo.

Do good and forget it. When you expect to be acknowledged and appreciated, then you have taken more. You are not a giver anymore. You have turned it into a transaction… the gratitude in return for the positive energy. This is worse than doing good for a favour. Because you are not even aware of your intentions.