Your browser is currently blocking notification.
Please follow this instruction to subscribe:
X
Notifications are already enabled.
X

A Pattern Of Sexual Harassment: ScoopWhoop’s House Of Cards

A Pattern Of Sexual Harassment: ScoopWhoop’s House Of Cards

In 2017, ScoopWhoop was rocked by allegations against cofounder Suparn Pandey, and now another set of allegations against ex-CEO Sattvik Mishra have shaken the company

Sources close to ScoopWhoop indicate a lack of transparency around such allegations with at least four incidents of sexual harassment alleged between 2017 and 2019

Did ScoopWhoop actually set up an internal complaints committee in 2017 or were its promises of compliance with the Prevention of Sexual Harassment (POSH) act simply hollow? 

Of all the ways it could have addressed allegations against one of its founders of sexual harassment at the workplace, ScoopWhoop chose the worst one: apathy.

In 2017, the company was rocked by allegations against cofounder Suparn Pandey, and the assumption is that this would have been a wake-up call. But instead, five years later, ScoopWhoop, now owned by ecommerce unicorn Good Glamm Group, is facing another storm, as another cofounder and ex-CEO Sattvik Mishra has also been alleged to have sexually assaulted an employee.

That’s the story being told by creator and YouTuber Samdish Bhatia who has alleged the assault by Mishra, as well as former employees of the content juggernaut. The current interim CEO Rishi Pratim Mukherjee, ex-CEO Mishra as well as Mishra’s wife Sriparna Tikekar, who is a cofounder and the chief content officer of the company, are at the centre of the storm.

Sources close to the company told us that employee complaints about harassment were dealt with in an opaque manner, and that ScoopWhoop enabled a culture of partying and inebriation at the workplace. It created a work environment where even those in charge of running the company are unaware of critical processes and systems.

Was ScoopWhoop Fully POSH-Compliant?

Even as it looks at starting a new life under Good Glamm, the ghosts of its past mistakes continue to haunt the company. Alarmingly, sources told us about the company’s misleading claims about setting up an internal complaints committee in 2017 and the hollow promise of compliance with the Prevention of Sexual Harassment (POSH) act.

If ScoopWhoop had the opportunity to clean up some of these toxic work culture elements in 2017-18, it only paid lip service to this chance. Publicly and in emails to employees, the company had claimed that it would form committees to deal with sexual harassment issues, but sources tell us these were nothing more than token statements.

Two former employees told us about a pattern of victim-shaming within the company and lack of transparency about how harassment issues have been handled. Inc42 could not independently verify these claims.

The POSH act mandates an internal complaints committee (ICC) for all private and public companies and organisations that have 10 or more employees or members. Guidelines state the ICC should be headed by a woman and no less than half of its members should be women. It also needs to have a third party such as an NGO or another body that is familiar with the issue of sexual harassment.

The ICC must make an annual report of the complaints and action taken against them. As per the POSH Act. But one source, who worked at the company from 2016 to 2021, told us that as far as they could tell there were no ICC reports published by ScoopWhoop.

The source knows this as they had requested to be part of the ICC multiple times during their stint at ScoopWhoop but were never told about its workings. They also claimed to have requested to see the ICC report that is mandated by POSH on at least five occasions, but no report was offered by the company.

Constituting an ICC is a mandatory POSH requirement and not abiding by the same can attract fines of up to INR 50K for the first violation and 2x fines for a repeat, and a possibility of cancellation of licence to conduct business operations on further transgressions.

Accusations Of Toxic Atmosphere…

In 2017, ScoopWhoop cofounder Suparn Pandey was accused of sexual harassment by a female employee and creating a toxic work atmosphere. At the time, Pandey had gone on leave and then CEO Sattvik Mishra had tried to clear the air in a company-wide email.

“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,” he had said in the email, as reported exclusively by Inc42 in April 2017.

Much of the email was dedicated to clearing Pandey’s name and proving how the complainant had fabricated the harassment. Mishra also claimed at the time that the ICC constituted three of “our most senior and experienced employees and an independent observer who has served on the ICC panel of big MNCs”, and had added that three out of the four members of the ICC were women.

But sources that worked in the company at the time told us this week that it wasn’t really clear who was part of the ICC.

“After the Suparn case, we had some POSH-related meetings, but they were all on Zoom. It was compulsory to attend but no one had their cameras on, and questions were not encouraged. They definitely made some efforts, but it was not taken seriously,” the source told us on the condition of anonymity as they were fearful of it impacting their career.

…And Lack Of Transparency 

Following the allegations in 2017, at least four other incidents of sexual harassment took place at ScoopWhoop, according to the source. One of those took place on December 29, 2017, just a few months after Mishra’s email, at a party in the company’s office in Delhi’s Vasant Kunj.

The person involved was fired and wasn’t seen in the office from the next day. No one was told why they were not with ScoopWhoop anymore, but a few people in the office knew the reason.

But at least three more incidents took place “spread throughout in 2019”, as per our sources, which were also never reported but handled internally. Inc42 could not independently verify these claims, but they beg many questions about the culture at ScoopWhoop.

ScoopWhoop’s office is as unconventional as they come. It’s a typical Delhi farm house, which perhaps belies the size and scale of the company. Such farm houses are usually residences, but in ScoopWhoop’s case it was an office, as well as a party venue on occasion.

At least one senior employee had raised some questions about the partying culture within the company.

Avlok Langer is the editor or head of the non-fiction team at ScoopWhoop and he had joined the company after a stint at Tehelka, a publication that was also rocked by the ongoing sexual harassment case involving editor-in-chief Tarun Tejpal in 2013. One source told us that Langer equated the open drinking culture at ScoopWhoop to a time bomb.

“He’s (Langer) seen how it can bring down the whole organisation and he used to constantly equate it to a ticking time bomb because of the employees were often kids out of college and here we have unregulated amounts of alcohol being consumed.”

Langer joined ScoopWhoop in August 2015 and would have led the company’s spin-off (WhoopScoop or Million Views Media) after the Good Glamm deal. But according to our source, Langer will be exiting WhoopScoop at the end of the month.

He’s also named in the most recent allegation of sexual harassment against ex-CEO Mishra as a potential witness to the alleged incident. Langer did not respond to queries from Inc42 about his time at ScoopWhoop.

It’s unclear how the news-centric spin-off company will move forward. But these allegations will haunt ScoopWhoop even in its new home under unicorn Good Glamm Group’s umbrella. That’s because ScoopWhoop is still being led by Rishi Pratim Mukherjee, who is himself also accused by Bhatia of trying to bury the case.

Bhatia claimed that in a meeting that took place on October 22, 2021, two days after Good Glamm had announced the acquisition, Mukherjee wanted to suppress the incident and declined to initiate an investigation into Mishra’s alleged actions. Bhatia told us that Mukherjee was unaware of who constituted the ICC at ScoopWhoop when the question was posed at this meeting.

Mukherjee is said to have been fearful that any investigation into ScoopWhoop would have hampered the acquisition deal by Good Glamm. He allegedly offered to pay Bhatia to drop the complaint.

This after chat messages from Mishra to Bhatia a few days after the alleged incident all but confessing to the assault. The chat messages have been attached by Bhatia in his submissions to the court, which Inc42 has reviewed.

Inc42 has sought a response from ScoopWhoop’s Mukherjee on these allegations, but we have not received any responses from the company or the CEO yet.

The Legal Status Of ScoopWhoop’s Case

Not hearing back from the company over what action it will take against Mishra, Bhatia filed a legal complaint against the ex-CEO, current CEO Mukherjee and Mishra’s wife Sriparna Tikekar (named as a witness to the alleged sexual assault).

As for the status of the case from a legal point of view, Bhatia’s legal team has told us that the criminal complaint filed in the Patiala House Courts will be heard by a magistrate on February 24, 2022. Meanwhile, WhoopScoop has filed a case of its own, seeking injunctions against Bhatia and Mishra from speaking publicly about the alleged incident till an inquiry is completed.

Incidentally, ScoopWhoop had got a court-issued gag order in 2018 too, forbidding publication of details of the case or investigation into the allegations against Suparn Pandey. This particular injunction has not been awarded by the court as yet, according to advocate Ritesh Dhar Dubey, who is part of the team representing Bhatia.

Is POSH Too Expensive For Startups? 

India’s Vishaka Guidelines — which are the basis of the POSH Act — are a step towards creating a saw and friendly work environment. However, cases of harassment become much more complex in startups because many early-stage and even growth-stage startups lack the resources to hire an elaborate team that could enforce the policies in place. Some even function on an informal basis, so there is a lot of ambiguity around the process.

This also means there is no clarity on who is responsible for compliance or any form of continuity plan. Even if the HR head of a company leads the efforts, they are very likely to move on to other employment before their three-year tenure ends.

The other challenge is the cost for training or retaining NGOs and third-party members of the ICC. According to Rainmaker, a corporate training startup that aims to create POSH-compliant workplaces, the cost of a single POSH workshop is around INR 40K, which not many startups can afford to spend regularly.

As startups grow and hire more employees, they might need to spend on similar workshops multiple times a year. In many ways, the cost is high because of the lack of awareness of the fundamentals of personal boundaries, what constitutes sexual harassment and privacy. A lot of this is down to the lack of education at a primary and secondary level.

Of course, companies cannot shy away from their social responsibility, so even if they feel that creating a POSH-compliant workplace is too heavy a burden, it’s one that ultimately has to be borne to protect employee diversity, inclusion and workplace safety. Just training and workshops will not solve the challenge; it also calls for an open channel of communication between upper management and employees and reinforcement of the principles of inclusion in day-to-day operations.

Responsibility Of A Unicorn 

“Publicly they try to portray themselves as bastions of ‘wokeness’ but actually the culture is nothing like that,” said one former ScoopWhoop employee.

Good Glamm Group has spent millions in the past year acquiring companies and also raised millions and entered the unicorn club. Among these acquisitions was ScoopWhoop.

The company told Inc42 that Unscripted, where Bhatia was a key employee, was sold by ScoopWhoop to another entity prior to Good Glamm Group’s (G3) acquisition of ScoopWhoop. This company was WhoopScoop, which is now known as Million Views Media.

“On Monday February 7, 2022, we were made aware of the allegations against Sattvik Mishra in relation to an incident that occurred prior to the G3’s acquisition of ScoopWhoop. The harassment case against Sattvik Mishra was never brought to the attention of G3. Since we have been made aware of the alleged incident we have appointed independent legal counsel to oversee an inquiry into the matter. In the meanwhile, Priyanka Gill, cofounder of G3 is in charge and overseeing ScoopWhoop,” the company said.

What this means for Mukherjee who is interim CEO after Mishra’s exit remains to be seen.

The Good Glamm Group has also stated: “As mandated by the POSH Act, G3 has an IC (Internal Committee) including an independent member. Additionally, G3 is implementing measures such as setting up a Hotline where employees can anonymously report harassment, Awareness Camps and Anonymous Engagement Surveys across all the companies in G3.”

However, the company did not respond to questions about whether it looked into the past allegations against ScoopWhoop’s cofounders. It also did not respond to questions on who exactly is part of the internal committee besides Gill.

Here are some of the questions that we sent to Good Glamm Group and ScoopWhoop which elicited no responses:

Valuation and business scale aside, accountability and responsibility are also critical values for big companies to imbibe. If anything, they should become more indispensable as the company grows. By not responding to some critical questions, Good Glamm Group and ScoopWhoop are not just falling short on accountability, but also shying away from their responsibility to create a safe workplace.

The hope is that the new management will turn the company’s culture around and bring it in line with the values that ScoopWhoop has espoused over its many years. Whether that means Bhatia and others actually see some resolution remains to be seen.

Graphics and images: Noor Huda & Gayatri Sharma