Earlier today reports surfaced about a former female employee of Delhi-based ScoopWhoop who had accused co-founder Suparn Pandey of sexual harassment and sexual assault during her two-year tenure at the company. The complainant has also accused the CEO and co-founder Sattvik Mishra and co-founder Sriparna Tikekar of ‘abetting the harassment and even attempting to sweep it under the carpet.’
As per the report, a FIR (No. 0117) was filed at the Vasant Kunj (South) Police Station, Delhi, under section 354 A (sexual harassment), section 509 (insulting the modesty of a woman), and section 506 (criminal intimidation). Pandey’s application for anticipatory bail was denied today. The court, however, instructed the Delhi police that they will have to provide Pandey with a five-day notice before arresting him.
In response to the case, ScoopWhoop had issued an official media statement stating:
The complaint was forwarded to the ICC immediately on receipt and the same is being inquired as per law. The company is adhering to the rules and regulations set forth by the Hon. Supreme Court of India and the law of the land against sexual harassment at the workplace and the investigation is ongoing. As an FIR has also been filed separately by the complainant, and the police investigation is ongoing, we are extending full cooperation to the police to conduct a full and fair investigation into the matter.
We are fully prepared to accept the findings of the investigations and dutifully take the necessary action if found guilty.
In the FIR, the complainant specified that during her tenure from 2015 to 2017 with the media company, Suparn targeted her with “inappropriate comments and lewd remarks” on multiple occasions. While Pandey’s application for anticipatory bail was denied today, CEO and co-founder, Sattvik Mishra wrote an email to the entire ScoopWhoop team highlighting various incidents during the complainant’s tenure at the company.
Inc42 got its hands on the email sent by the CEO to the ScoopWhoop team after the news of the FIR spread earlier today. In the email, Mishra highlights the tenure of the complainant and various communications that were exchanged between the founders and the complainant, showcasing that no such issues or complaints were raised by her in any official email. In fact, the emails showcase that the complainant left on a good note thanking all the co-founders.
However, we could not, at the time of publishing, verify whether there were any more email exchanges besides the ones highlighted here.
The contents of the following email have been extracted from the email sent out by Sattvik to the entire ScoopWhoop team and have been reproduced as is without any editing. We have, however, struck out any mention of the complainant’s name, email id or designation to protect her identity.
[Email Starts Here]
I would have not spoken about a very sensitive matter that has occurred, if things had not been put out in the public domain. Lives and reputations are at stake, and as the CEO of the company, it is my duty and responsibility to share the facts and provide ample evidence to substantiate my stand. I owe it to you guys!
ScoopWhoop Media has always prided itself on the diversity of its workforce which is highlighted by the fact that all three publications of the company namely ScoopWhoop.com, Vagabomb.com and GazabPost.com are headed by women. Over 45% of our workforce is constituted of female staff (the industry standard is at 27%) and women employees form a crucial part of all our departments, including tech and finance (usually male dominated departments in Indian companies). This is testament to the fact that we have a very healthy gender mix as well as a free, strong and vibrant work culture which every employee takes pride in.
Let me begin by recounting the events of Saturday, 18th February when I got a very disturbing email in which a senior employee accused one of the early members of the company of sexually harassing her in June of 2016. In the same email, she had accused Sriparna (co-founder and Chief Content Officer) and myself of “negligence” and “abetting to this harassment” by not providing her relief against the main accused.
The Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) instituted to handle cases of sexual harassment is investigating into the said matter as we speak. Since by law, the workings of the committee is confidential in nature, I have refrained from delving into details of that on-going investigation. Also, given the grave and sensitive nature of the case at hand, I have refrained from disclosing the name of the complainant and have ensured to keep hidden the complainant’s name from all evidence that I have proceeded to furnish in my account below, such as screen grabs of email correspondence, online chat records etc.
For the sake of confidentiality and brevity, the main accusations mentioned in the complainant’s notice to the ICC are as follows:
- The complainant has alleged that in the month of June 2016, she was subjected to sexual harassment by an early employee of the company
- The complainant has alleged that both Sriparna and myself, since the incident, have systematically created an environment of duress for the complainant, which ultimately forced her to resign
- The complainant has alleged that she had been constantly pulled up over performance issues and was overburdened with work, in-order to protect the accused
- The complainant has alleged that on 31st of Jan 2017, I deliberately asked her to come to office to attend an all editors meeting, even though she was on a sick leave, so I could “corner” and “humiliate” her in front of all the editors, as a result of which she was forced to send in her resignation
At this stage please allow me to delve into the background and provide context and trace back the sequence of events that eventually led to the notice issued by the complainant as mentioned above.
31st Jan 2017: What Transpired In The Editors Meeting
As the new fiscal year was starting from April 2017, I wanted to sit with all the editors of ScoopWhoop Media and give each one of them some constructive feedback around their work and overall functioning. On the 31st of January 2017, I called for a meeting for the same.
I sent an email to all my editors calling for a meeting, to which the complainant replied that she was on sick leave and requested the meeting to be shifted to another day. I told her that I was travelling for the next few days, so I didn’t wish to postpone the meeting. I also informed her that if she was feeling unwell, she could excuse herself from the meeting and we could reconvene at a later date.
Below is a screenshot of the email I sent out to all the editors.
The meeting occurred in the main conference room of the office where there were 9 other people present besides the complainant, Sriparna and myself. I began the meeting by addressing the Editor of (Redacted) and the Editor of (Redacted), giving them specific feedback on their sections and asking them to look at newer formats and improve the quality of content to drive better results. Both the editors took the feedback in the right spirit and told me that they will get back with a plan for the same.
I then proceeded to tell the complainant that she and her team needed to up its game as it was the least performing division of the company. I also gave her examples of publications much smaller than the one she was handling, both from a financial and team strength point of view, who managed to perform much better. The feedback was not received positively and the complainant became defensive and an argument ensued. She continuously put the blame on everything else, from ScoopWhoop’s technology team to the general lack of innovation within the company.
At this point, I firmly reminded her that there were other divisions within the company, that were performing exponentially better with the same set of resources. This made her get even more defensive making the conversation extremely animated. I pointed out that my intentions were not to prove her wrong or not address her issues, but to highlight that there was a huge scope of improvement from her and her team.
Post this, I moved on to other members of the team including and in the same tone, told them about the areas in which they needed to improve. Everyone in the room took the feedback in the right professional spirit.
Everyone present in that room, will be able to corroborate the occurrences of that meeting. Was my voice louder than normal? May be. Was I scolding everyone, yes. As the CEO of the company, my job entails holding performance meetings from time to time and hauling up employees when I feel that they have been slacking or can put in more effort or do a better job. Is it wrong for a CEO to pull up and sometimes reprimand his senior employees in case he thinks they’re not doing their job right?
I would urge all of you to speak to all the editors who were present in the room on Jan 31st to understand what exactly happened in that meeting.
The Issue Of Performance
The complainant was not performing well professionally over the last 3 months. The publication she was responsible for wasn’t growing fast enough. In-fact, her’s was the only division within ScoopWhoop Media that has been performing below average. While other divisions grew immensely and exponentially, her division has been stagnant over the past year in terms of unique users. In contrast, the other platforms performed 9x and 5.5x better. In fact, another platform with the same staff strength was continuously growing faster.
It was also alarming to note that a lot of people under her were resigning one after the other. In the last 3 months, almost 5 people had resigned. In fact, two women employees (who reported directly to the complainant) before quitting in early January had confided to an HR person that she constantly felt bullied and disrespected by the complainant. (On learning that the complainant had put in her resignation and was leaving the organisation, one of them withdrew her resignation).
31st Jan 2017: The Resignation
Approximately a couple of hours after the meeting, I got a resignation letter from the complainant. The letter appreciates the work culture at ScoopWhoop and the co-founders, contradicting her accusation of systematically creating a hostile environment in the organisation, forcing her to resign. Below is the screenshot of that email. What’s important to note here is the tone of the email.
Post this mail, Sriparna acknowledged and accepted her resignation and wished her all the best in her future endeavours. To which her reply was “Thank you!”
Between June 2016 And January 31 2017
To reiterate, the complainant in her notice dated 18th Feb 2017, alleged that both Sriparna and myself, over a period of the last 7 months, systematically created an environment of duress for her, which forced her to resign. She has also mentioned that she was allegedly pulled up for her performance, overburdened with work, publicly insulted and patronised by Sriparna and myself.
To be honest, I hardly interacted in-person with her during that period.
Let me share some email exchanges between Sriparna and the complainant during that time period. Does any of the correspondence below reek of patronisation or hint at harassment in any way?
By the way, in her complaint, she has said the grievous incident happened to her on the 7th of June 2016. A day after that, she wished Sriparna a very jovial Happy Birthday.
The below screenshot is from September 2016. 3 months into her alleged harassment by Sriparna.
Complainant to Sriparna — Since you’ve always kept an open channel of communication with me and allowed me to come share my problems with you.
The above email conversation happened in September 2016, during the period in which the complainant claims that she was being targeted. Although the complainant in some cases refers to some of her colleagues in unparliamentary language (for e.g.“scumbag”), Sriparna still responded in a professional and polite manner.
The below email screenshot is from December 2016. 6 months into her alleged continuous harassment by Sriparna.
The complainant to Sriparna: Please know that this is just a desperate measure I’m taking to salvage my mental and physical wellbeing, and is not a bearing on any other aspect of my employment at ScoopWhoop… I Love SW. I’m fond of my bosses, and I adore this culture.
The above mail was sent on 7th December 2016, allegedly 6 months into her constant harassment and victimisation. It is also important to note in the above email that the complainant herself has accepted that she wasn’t performing well and was slacking because of some personal circumstances. She also mentions categorically that she is fond of her bosses, that’s Sriparna and me.
Here are also some chat messages between the two in 2016.
June 2016: The Incident
What happened in June 2016 between the complainant and Suparn? Honestly, I don’t know. The complainant was a key member of the senior management, an early hire and we would have done everything to ensure that there was a free and fair enquiry into the matter. She never brought up the matter before till the night of 18th February 2017 in her complaint; a few weeks after putting in her resignation.
As CEO of the company, it is my responsibility to act on any formal complaints set forth by any employee within the organisation. So the question of protecting Suparn does not arise as there was nothing that was formally brought to my notice even once in all that time.
Let me also say this, in spite of all of this…if there is any merit in the case against anyone in the company, strictest action will be taken.
As we speak, the company is doing everything it needs to do to follow the rules and regulations set forth by the Hon. Supreme Court of India against sexual harassment at workplace. We’ve referred the matter the very next day to the Internal Complains Committee (ICC) which constitutes of three of our most senior and experienced employees and an independent observer who has served on the ICC panel of big MNCs.
3 out of 4 members of the ICC are women.
We are co-operating with Police and are fully prepared to accept the findings of the investigations and dutifully take the necessary action if anyone is found guilty.
[Email Ends Here]
ScoopWhoop was founded in 2013 by Sattvik Mishra, Suparn Pandey, Rishi Pratim Mukherjee, Sriparna Tikekar, Debarshi Banerjee, and Saransh Singh. The company is backed by investors including IgniteWorld, formerly known as Bharti Softbank (BSB), Kalaari Capital and has raised over $5.17 Mn in funding till date.
This news comes just a few weeks after an anonymous blogger accused TVF CEO Arunabh Kumar of sexual misconduct. Post the blog, several women came forward with allegations of inappropriate behaviour by Arunabh. Later, two complaints were lodged at the MIDC and Versova police station against Kumar. Last week, Kumar, however, managed to get interim relief by the Dindoshi Sessions Court in the ongoing sexual harassment case against him.
Incidents like these have brought forward the unspoken harsh realities of workplace sexual harassment. Is this just another exaggerated case of a firing gone wrong or is this the dark side of young entrepreneurs leading large companies cutting corners in the race to become the next startup unicorn? With more and more such cases coming to light, one thing is clear though. It’s high time startups and their founders start taking legal and HR processes and requirements more seriously instead of ignoring/outsourcing it as yet another paltry task.
Sexual harassment is a matter of serious legal and public concern. We at Inc42 strictly condemn sexual harassment at the workplace. If you would like to share your story of facing sexual harassment at the workplace and want to bring light to the issue, please drop us a mail at [email protected].