Indians just can’t stand people whose political opinions are different from theirs—be it on Twitter or inside a billion-dollar company. But does it mean such views ought not to be aired at work?
Such a conundrum abruptly surfaced at a unicorn yesterday (Jan. 6): Tech billionaire Sridhar Vembu was called a “fascist” and a Nazi on Twitter over his plans to attend a Feb. 2 event organised by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the parent organisation of prime minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. Several commentators even sought a boycott of his company, Zoho, a software service provider based in southern India’s Chennai.
Vembu, often described as “modest” and “simple,” refused to engage with his “attackers” on Twitter. The 52-year-old enjoys a healthy reputation in the business community for building an IT empire without any VC funding and for employing an army of high school graduates.
However, Monday was simply not his day.
While he drew flak over the RSS event, a Medium post from last year by a former Zoho employee resurfaced on social media. Published under the name Saravana Raja, the article claimed Vembu was himself hostile towards the writer for criticising the RSS on the intranet.
As expected, there were some strong responses from right-wing supporters but Sridhar’s reply came like a bolt out of the blue. He said my post “crossed an important line to spread historical falsehood and calumny.” He went further and said, “You cannot just say anything here in the name of free speech… Go build your own platform to spread your values… I will not fire you, but I do have strong disagreement with you and I am asking you ‘Why do you still choose to work here, when your value system is so much at odds with what company and its CEO believe in?’…”
The employee says he chose to quit. Zoho has not responded to Quartz’s emails on this matter.
However, should one talk about one’s views on national politics on company-wide intranet? And should bosses and founders air their own political views so publicly?
The answer to the first question is a resounding yes.
Indians are among the most overworked employees on the planet, and end up spending most of their waking hours in office. In such a scenario, it is impossible for political views to remain bottled up for too long among colleagues.
Utkarsh Amitabh, the founder of peer mentoring group Network Capital and a Quartz Pro, says nearly 65% of the members of his community of elite professionals in India want to do it. In fact, discussing politics with co-workers can even have surprising benefits.
“Learning how to talk about politics in a productive manner can help you manage other difficult conversations at work, including peer performance reviews or disagreements over strategy and policy,” Joseph Grenny, co-author of Crucial Conversations, told Harvard Business Review.
Yet, there can be horrible consequences as well. In the current political climate, there is a strong tendency among urban Indians to demonise those with different views. Up to 35% Indians believe that those who hold political views opposed to their own are not worth having a conversation with, according to a recent Ipsos poll. The respondents were educated and affluent.
“Earlier people were much more uninhibited and spontaneous while discussing politics in office,” says Aditya Mishra, founder & CEO of Ciel HR Services. “Now they are scared and don’t want trouble with the boss.”
Souring the relationship with a boss or alpha team member can result in anything from an unproductive day to job loss.
Some professionals share their opinions on Instagram and those who disagree tend to avoid bringing up their points of view at work these days, an internal communication executive at an IT firm tells me. “I have seen colleagues are more confident to talk about Modi or BJP when they are absolutely sure there is no Muslim or beef lover in the company WhatsApp group,” she adds.
Stay calm and be a leader
As for the question on the boss’s role, neutrality is key to avoid emotional flare-ups in these polarised times.
“Leaders in an organisation must promote tolerance towards diversity—especially now,” says Mishra. “As a company, you are serving customers from various faiths and communities, and bosses have to make a conscious effort to stand by diversity.”
Maybe that is something Vembu can do.