Is Cognizant Targetting Women Employees? By Malini Bhupta (Source: Moneycontrol)
Like any proud new mother, Madhumita Mukherjees (name and picture above changed to protect identity) Whatsapp status says: My baby, my sunshine. But it is her newfound status of a mother that got Mukherjee into trouble with her employer Cognizant Technologies.
Mukherjee, who joined Cognizant’s Kolkata branch in 2012, went on maternity leave early 2016 and resumed in September that year. But on resuming work, she found that her manager was reluctant to assign her projects. She was told that she may not be able to do justice to her work.
When she insisted on a project, she was given one requiring her to stay in office beyond 10 pm. And when she asked for better hours, Mukherjee was benched. On January 3, 2017 she was asked to resign for not being flexible.
In the worst of times, few companies would resort to firing women employees who have just come back from maternity leave. What is surprising is such desperate measures are being taken by IT companies which have strong balance sheets.
And while they preach gender equality in public, most companies in India view pregnant women as unproductive assets. And the recent government decision extending maternity leave benefits could only lead to further discrimination against women, say HR experts.
In response to a query, Cognizants spokesperson said: We cannot comment on individual cases without verifying facts. We have robust checks and balances in place to make sure maternity leave does not impact performance reviews. As a responsible corporate, we adhere to applicable laws and regulations in both letter and spirit, and are proud of our commitment to diversity and the empowerment of women professionals.
Senior officials at Cognizant confirmed that there have been such cases of termination, some of which were subsequently revoked.
However, Mukherjee and some other women Moneycontrol spoke to said that they had not been reinstated, as they were asked to resign voluntarily. Some of these women are contemplating legal action. What will make the fight harder for these women is that they were asked to resign voluntarily. When Moneycontrol asked the company why it was asking employees to resign, Cognizants response was: “We do not terminate employees or conduct layoffs. We have performance-related discussions with all employees irrespective of their ratings.”
Revenue productivity of employees in IT services is directly linked to projects they work on and the actual amount billed to clients. And women who go on maternity leave are treated as unbillable and, therefore, during their appraisals this reflects as time spent on the bench, said the affected women employees.
Sunita Reddy (name changed), another affected female employee at Cognizants Bengaluru branch, says: I went on maternity leave last year and when I came back I was given a poor rating of MS (meets some expectations). When I asked my manager, I was told that it was a normalization process since I was not going to be billable while I was on maternity leave.”
On paper, the companys policies on women cannot be faulted. Cognizant allows women to avail an extra eight months unpaid leave after their paid maternity leave is exhausted. But many women in Cognizant claim that no sooner do managers know that a woman is pregnant, she is taken off projects as she is not considered to be reliable. Says Mukherjee, I was benched and made to hand over my project even before I went on maternity leave as I was told I would end up taking leave and the project would suffer. But I was shocked when I was called for a discussion in January and made to resign.
Women constitute 30 percent of the workforce in IT, which is significantly higher than in other industries. But Kris Lakshmikanth, Founder CEO & Managing Director of Head Hunters India, says: On their way to the top, the percentage of women in IT drops to five percent, as women pursue a better work-life balance. It is worth asking why more than 80 percent women opt out.
A senior human resource manager at Bangalore says IT companies tend to go after women as they are easy targets. Says Kingshuk Chatterjee, spokesperson for the Kolkata chapter of the Forum for IT Employees (FITE), We strongly condemn the unfair practices employed by the IT industry against women who have returned from maternity leave. We have been approached by several women who have also told us that their appraisals have been affected while they were on maternity leave. We are currently consulting our lawyers to see what recourse she has since the lady has been forced to resign.
Other than giving a poor rating to women on maternity leave and forcing them to resign, Cognizants human resource department also appears to be resorting to pressure tactics to force women employees into submitting their resignations.
R Sujatha (name changed), a Bengaluru-based techie, who joined Cognizant in 2013 after completing her BTech, says she did a course in cloud computing just so she could opt out of the low-end work she was doing of generating tickets and filling log sheets. Despite the upskilling she was asked to resign in April.
When she resisted, her access card was blocked. Says Sujatha, who hails from Tumkur, The human resource department applied for leave on my behalf when I refused to resign. So I took a temporary access card and started entering the campus. I even mailed the human resource manager but got no reply.
After a few days Sujatha got a call from her parents, who had received a letter from the human resource manager. The letter dated May 5, which has been reviewed by Moneycontrol, says: Dear Sujatha, you have been absent from work since April 22. You are hereby directed to report to work immediately. We would like to inform you that your continued absence from work without authorization will render yourself liable for disciplinary action.
Sujatha showed Moneycontrol her attendance logs which shows that she was present in April, barring the days she claimed a leave application was filed without her knowledge.
Sujathas senior colleagues claim that her refusal to resign is making the company resort to such tactics.
Another woman employee claims that after she was asked to resign, her access to company transport was restricted and she had to manage her commute on her own. Cognizants campus in Bantala in Kolkata is at a remote location and the commute is not easy. Several women said that they have had to find their own way back from the remote campus in Bantala after 8 pm. Moneycontrol could not verify this allegation as there was nothing on record to establish this charge.
Others claim that they cannot afford to pay Rs 1,800 in bus charges that the company levies on employees for availing the service.
An IT analyst says Cognizant is desperate, which is why it is resorting to such drastic steps. It is under pressure from Elliott Management, a hedge fund shareholder, to cut costs and improve margins, he says. So far Cognizant has been a very benign employer and paid 100-150 percent bonuses, but now the strain is showing.
And, so far, Cognizant had maintained a strong bench strength to meet a sudden ramp-up in projects. But as the business environment tightens and pressure from investors mounts, the company is using the obvious lever available to it job cuts — to shore up margins.
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