PUCL Bulletin, Jan. 2001

Sexual Harassment at SmithKline Beecham
By Asma Siddiqi

When is sexual harassment at workplace not harassment? When the management thinks so! That seems to be the case as far as SmithKline Beecham; one of the largest multinational pharmaceutical companies is concerned. This is evident from the company's unfair handling of my complaint of sexual harassment, against a male member of the higher management in its Pakistan office.

As an employee of the company, I lodged a complaint of sexual harassment in 1996 against my supervisor, Abdul Quadir Molvi who was the marketing services manager. He had been harassing me, and a couple of days before my annual performance appraisal had asked me to give him Rs. 30,000 (about US$ 750, which was more than my monthly salary) as a loan. I did not give him the money, which upset him.

Quadir Molvi continued his disgusting behaviour, making lewd remarks, telling dirty jokes in my presence, invading my personal space and touching me unnecessarily. Several of my female colleagues told me that they had been suffering Molvi's unwelcome sexual advances. One of them told me that she had asker for transfer from his department. I found that throughout the company, Molvi had the reputation of being a lecher.

I reported the matter to his supervisor, Salman Burney, the then Marketing Director. Burney tried to laugh off the matter, and said he probably likes you! He then defended Molvi's behaviour by ascribing it to his having been a 'salesman' and that such people were like that. He accused me of being over sensitive and said that the integrity of my supervisor could not be questioned, as he was a senior employee of the company and a family man with grown up daughters'. Needless to say, Burney did not take any steps to prevent Molvi from persisting in his usual vulgar fashion. In order to proceed further with my complaint I asked Human Resources to give me a copy of the company's service rules and its policy on sexual harassment. I was told that they did not have any such thing nor was I entitled to ask for it.

I persisted in my complaints and took up the matter with John Squires, the expatriate Managing Director of SmithKline Beecham at that time. Squires tried to prevent me from pursuing my complaint and adopted a threatening attitude, warning, if you don't like him, why don't you leave, in other words, if I wanted to work in the company, I should agree to be sexually harassed. I refused to give in and submitted a written complaint, putting the issue on record. Eventually, after much feet dragging, an enquiry was initiated into the matter and an all-male inquiry committee was set up, under the supervision of the Human resources Director.

The standard practice of inducting a female member into committees investigating the highly sensitive issue of sexual harassment was ignored, thus bringing into question the very integrity of the committee.

The lodging of a formal complaint another dimension to acts of intimidation by the management in an effort to keep the lid on the issue. The inquiry committee, instead of playing the role of an unbiased body, followed the lead of the management, and formalized the intimidation process. In this instance it led to defamatory remarks, threats and ridicule by the higher management to coerce me to take back the complaint. The management threatened me and labeled me a 'troublemaker' and 'whistleblower'. The inquiry committee asked me and to give a list of witnesses, company employees who had suffered similar behavior from Quadir Molvi. Upon learning of their names, the management approached the would be witnesses and, using both intimidation and favors tried to dissuade them from testifying in support of my complaint. The management pressure was so great that two out of four of my witnesses changed their position. One of them withdrew her earlier written statement and the other, modified hers as per the direction of the top management. Three of my colleagues who had differences with me on various other issues were persuaded to speak out in support my supervisor. One 'supporter' Erum Shakir was the person who had transferred from Molvi's department because of his sexual harassment. All three were rewarded with promotions and foreign trips at the companies expense soon after they gave statements, which satisfied management.

The protracted proceedings continued in fits and starts, with no remedial action being taken against the accused. During the investigation, Molvi approached one of my witnesses and confessed his offense in the presence of another colleague and offered to apologize to me provided I withdrew my complaint, saying it was a misunderstanding. I refused. Not finding any protection from the Pakistan office of the company, I approached Damien Carpanini, Human Resources Director at SmithKline Beecham's Head office in London UK. I told Carpanini that I was not satisfied with the manner in which the inquiry was conducted and wanted to discuss the matter with him. He refused, saying that he had full confidence in the Pakistan management and that discussing the matter with me would mean he was allowing me to influence the decision of the inquiry committee.

The inquiry committee eventually cleared Quadir Molvi of all charges and I was asked to report to him as before. I protested that I felt unsafe working with him, as he had now grown even more indecent and aggressive. The Human Resources in London turned a deaf ear to my complaint and informed me that they were satisfied with the decision of the inquiry committee and were not interested in discussing the matter with me.

In Karachi soon after the decision of the committee my supervisor began to call me to his room every ten to fifteen minutes. I suggested that he used the intercom phone for communication but he insisted I met him in person each time he called me. The marketing director told me that I would have to meet the supervisor whenever he called me in his office and would have to develop a one-on -one relationship with him otherwise, I could loose my job. I told him that I did not want to meet him whenever he called me to his office, as I was afraid of his indecent actions. My continued stand against, and refusals to give in to, the demands of the management earned me a two-line termination letter. No reasons for termination were given. However, the Human Resources Department told me verbally that in view of my aforementioned meeting with Salman Burney in which I had refused to meet Quadir Molvi my services were being terminated instantly. No written warning or notice was given in contradiction of company policy. Human resources also warned that if I did not meet my supervisor before I left, I would lose the salary due to me. I refused to meet the supervisor.

I was told that after my dismissal the Marketing Director told his collogues that he had to fire me because I was mad. One of my supervisor's witnesses went to the extent of contracting my former journalist collogues in Karachi and tried to defame me.

I suffered tremendously during and after the ordeal but have no intension of giving up. My experience shoes why incidents of sexual harassment are not reported. The threat of ridicule, intimidation and termination is used in keeping women from coming forward. Those who do, pay dearly, not only in terms of career loss but also emotional trauma and stress.

The John Squires referred to in this article is NOT the Acting Managing Editor of the Human Rights defender, nor is he related to him in any way- Editor, HRD.

From Human Rights Defender, Sept 2000

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