From Discovery to BCCI, stories on Rahul Johri epitomise what ails top institutions in fixing sexual harassment at the workplace.
A character certificate of sorts on Rahul Johri as a “loving father, devoted husband and inspiring leader” has been floating around since his name cropped up among several others on Twitter as part of the #MeToo movement. A WhatsApp request was circulated among former employees asking them to sign it and testify to his “tremendous decency” and “high moral character.”
On January 15, 2017, senior officials at the Board of Control of Cricket in India (BCCI) received an anonymous email with the subject: “Well Wisher of Indian Cricket”. The mail warned against the appointment of Rahul Johri as the Chief Executive Officer to BCCI and stated that he had been involved in a “sex harassment case in Discovery channel.”
On October 12, screenshots on Twitter outed Johri as part of the #MeToo movement. The account detailed how Johri had coerced an ex-colleague to perform oral sex on him under the pretext of a job offer. Textbook sexual harassment.
As anonymous accounts go, not much has come out of these allegations. Johri dismissed the 2017 email as a “malicious attempt” to tarnish his reputation and went on take charge of BCCI in June 2017. The Twitter outing has resulted in him being allowed to go on leave and mull over his response.
Vinod Rai, meanwhile, has dubbed the Twitter allegations as a “purely anonymous complaint” but if BCCI insiders are to be believed, the head of the Supreme Court-appointed Committee of Administrators (CoA) has been aware of a sexual harassment complaint against Johri—this time from a known employee.
What follows is a narration of the alleged incident as told to Newslaundry by two top officials at the BCCI who were in the know.
BOYS’ CLUBS IN THE WORKSPACE
Sunita (name changed) had been at the receiving end of unwelcome attention by Johri at the workplace. This involved passing sexually-coloured remarks and unwanted overtures. Sunita dealt with this behaviour for a while, before matters escalated and she resigned.
At the ICC Champions Trophy in London in September 2017, Johri made a veiled request for sexual favours. He believed women do lots of things for fame and money. Sunita told him off for these suggestions and subsequently, she was targeted at work. For not succumbing to his demand, Johri singled her out at the workplace.
Sunita had had enough and she quit the organisation in February 2018. Johri accepted her resignation. But Rai did not accept it; he was in Singapore at the time and met her unofficially once he was back to resolve the matter. Sunita, along with her husband, met Rai at Trident Hotel, Mumbai, to discuss the issue and in early March 2018, she wrote an email to Rai detailing the harassment she had faced. There was no official enquiry set up on the complaint but Johri was asked to apologise in a meeting where another board member—a politician—played the mediator. Following Johri’s profuse apology, Sunita rejoined BCCI. It was ensured that she would no longer report to Johri.
Interestingly, it was only after this incident that BCCI formed its Internal Complaints Committee in April 2018 to deal with cases of sexual harassment. Newslaundry has assessed the mail that calls for the constitution of the committee on April 20, 2018. This amounts to a glaring dereliction of duty, especially when you consider that Rai is the head of a Supreme Court-appointed committee.
Advocate Amba Salelkar says, “If an employer receives information from an employee directly that could be sexual harassment, they have an obligation to initiate action under Section 19 (i). It’s worrying that there are many cases where the ICC is bypassed by the management.”
Newslaundry’s attempts to reach out to Sunita have been in vain. Neither have we been able to speak with the anonymous person who outed Johri on Twitter. But if the account—as narrated by top BCCI officials—is true, it raises serious questions on the functioning of BCCI. In many ways, it is also symptomatic of how the “boys’ club” has operated in the workspace to the detriment of women employees.
This is not the first time Johri has found himself in the midst of allegations of inappropriate behaviour at the workplace. Johri’s previous employer, Discovery India, seems disturbed by the allegations against him and states that he has no record of sexual abuse. But whisper networks from his days in the media are rife with stories.
POWER PLAYS AND SEXUAL INNUENDOS
Johri has had a long career in the media space before taking over BCCI. He was part of the founding team at Outlook, was regional manager (north) at Hindustan Times, and worked at Zee for a short time before moving on to Discovery in 2001 as director of sales.
People familiar with Johri’s stint in the media describe him as one of India’s leading marketing men, Deepak Shourie’s blue-eyed boy. His career progression essentially involved following Shourie, who last held the profile of director, South Asia, BBC Worldwide Channels. When Shourie quit Discovery in 2010, Johri was promoted to lead the channel’s South Asia operations.
“He was very close to Deepak Shourie and was considered untouchable in the organisation. Johri was also known to be a bit of a deal-maker. Not someone who may necessarily play by the book but would get the work done,” says a male employee, who’s worked with the duo in Discovery.
Newslaundry spoke to at least a dozen men and women who’ve worked with Johri and the picture that emerges is that of a man who was acutely aware of the power he wielded and used it well. Newslaundry has been informed by two former Discovery employees who worked with Johri that there was at least one official complaint against him that went up to the HR. Many women we spoke to told us of Johri making women uncomfortable with lewd jokes, forcing them to drink at parties, unwelcome hugs, inappropriate remarks and quid pro quo harassment.
“He was very suggestive in a lot of things, there was a lot of sexual innuendo to how he talked. He would sometimes stand too close to you near your work desk. At office parties, he would force people to have shots and if one didn’t, he had this line he’d tell you: “Kya yaar, tum me juice hi nahin hai’,” says A.
She says most women—not all—would avoid him at parties. “His conduct definitely did make me uncomfortable. There was one situation with me where I was offered to head a department. It was implicit that this offer came with a quid pro quo. I declined, but I knew why this offer was made. He tried to do favours for me, but he probably gauged that I wouldn’t budge.”
B, a female former employee, says, “There were, of course, a number of inappropriate conversations. People didn’t feel comfortable hanging out with him, especially at parties. If he asked you to stand next to him, people sort of kato-ed as soon as they could. I remember a very junior person in the company, somebody who had just joined, she was forced by Rahul to do shots … and the joke around it would be, ‘oh I’ll promote you’. The culture he had built is that you should be able to drink a lot and show up at 8.30 in the morning. So, being in his ‘gang’ meant getting drunk, laughing at all his jokes and going along with whatever happens …otherwise, you’d be ignored at meetings.”
Another male employee, C says, Johri would pressure him to get “sexy girls into the team”. C says: “He was very categoric with that suggestion…he would say, do whatever you have to: bribe the agencies, send girls to them…do whatever for the business to grow. Some of his behaviour was pretty juvenile…he would come on to girls at conferences. Back when I was there, he hadn’t gained much power so if the girls refused, he would step back.”
At least five people who worked with Johri in Discovery confirmed of an incident in which at a conference in Goa, he had asked one of his employees to sit behind him on the pillion of a two-wheeler. C says, “We were going from one venue to the other and he asked a junior colleague to sit behind him on a two-wheeler and admonished her for not holding [onto] him while she sat behind him. The person was taken aback and immediately told her colleagues about it.”
Newslaundry was also informed of a verbal complaint against Johri that was brought to the attention of the senior management. This complaint went all the way to HR but nothing came of it. This again involved sexual advances with a suggestion of career progression. It was decided that the complainant would no longer report to Johri.
These were times when there was no ICC to speak of and even when one was constituted, employees had very little understanding of how it worked and what constituted sexual harassment at the workplace. A lot of the behaviour was normalised and most women had developed their internal mechanisms to deal with creepy behaviour by male bosses.
“At media companies, you didn’t really have a hierarchical system. It was more informal and the vibe was cooler given that the median age was young. At the same time, there were lines, and it was the senior bosses, the managers, who were crossing these lines,” says D.
Speaking of her personal experience, D adds: “There was this power play that would happen. There would be evenings when one would step out with your colleagues or there would be celebrations, these were official celebrations…he would force women to drink. It is different when your peers say ‘have another drink’ but quite another thing when your manager says so in an authoritative style. I would wriggle out of these situations but you knew you had pissed him off. There was an incident where he tore up a bunch of papers and threw them at me—I knew this was stemming from somewhere else because I had not complied.”
The idea of complaining wouldn’t cross anyone’s mind because there was no avenue to really complain against the bosses and for fear of future job prospects. D says, “There were just four to five aspirational media companies one would like to work with. And all of them were stuck with the same issues. So, one just took it in their stride.”
“Touching women, hugging them, this was normalised behaviour,” says another employee, E.
F, a male employee who’s worked in Discovery and other media companies, says: “A lot of it was culture and it happened … but there is a difference between when it’s consensual and when it is coercive. You have to draw that distinction. It was never okay in media companies to use coercion.” F says Johri’s interaction with women would fall in the latter category.
“Women needed the jobs and needed the experience. There was an instance where a senior manager had groped a very young girl in the office in his cabin. Nothing came of it. Everyone knew of the incident but the guy was allowed to stay on. There was really no incentive then for anyone to complain,” F says.
However, G, a former Discovery employee who’s worked with Johri for about 10 years, says she was never privy to any complaint against him, formal or informal, and neither did he ever misbehave with her in any way. “If anything of this sort had come to my attention, I would have definitely urged the person to take it up with HR.”
H says: “You’ve seen Mad Men, right? That was it. That was the culture. That is precisely why I stepped out of the sector because I didn’t want to expose myself to this shit. It wasn’t just media, it was happening in every industry. I wouldn’t want to single out Rahul Johri as the devil, because the devil culture existed.”
This story deliberately does not detail where and when the people quoted above worked with Johri to protect their identities. We can’t detail the specifics of some of the allegations for fear of the woman being identified. Much of what we were told had to be kept out of the story for this reason. The fear of repercussions is surprisingly strong even though many of these conversations should be easily had to improve work culture and because Johri has exited the media industry.
In a case like that of Johri’s and even MJ Akbar’s, there’s also talk of women “having relented” in some cases. But such a suggestion ignores the fact that the employer-employee relationship clouds consent. Salelkar says, “The Act [POSH] clearly says that there are circumstances which, if in existence with or connected with any act or behaviour of sexual harassment, may amount to sexual harassment. This includes ‘implied or explicit promise of preferential treatment in her employment’. So, a suggestion of an exchange of sexual favours in return for better job prospects is certainly sexual harassment. But even women who consent to sexual relations with someone who has either been explicit or implied—which could even be by virtue of their position in a company—can file for sexual harassment.”
‘A MAN OF HIGH MORAL CHARACTER’
We can’t ascertain how many people have testified to Johri’s “high moral character”, but his Wikipedia page tells us of his tremendous utility to the organisations he has worked with.
He was the “CEO of the Year” in 2013, he received the “Media Professional of the Year” award in 2014, Discovery Networks Asia-Pacific under him was awarded the “Best Media and Entertainment Company” and in 2017, he was listed amongst the top 10 Sports Business Executives of the Year by Sport Business, for his contribution to the 550 per cent jump in the IPL media rights sale.
Johri is known to stand with Rai in the ongoing bitter infighting between the CoA and members of the Board. The allegations against him, then, could be explained away by dirty politics and muckraking by the camp that has positioned itself against Rai-Johri.
Only the former Comptroller Auditor General can clear the air on the exact nature of the complaint against Johri and the institutional action he took, if any. A little transparency and an earnest intent to provide a safe working environment for women won’t hurt. At the heart of it, that is exactly what the #MeToo movement is all about.