MeToo in India: Former Taj Hotels employee accuses former CEO Rakesh Sarna of sexual harassment

Anjuli Pandit, who was initially working at Tata Sons in the then Chairman Cyrus Mistry's office in 2014, was transferred to Sarna's office a year later as his executive assistant, on his request.

FP Staff November 01, 2018 10:56:45 IST
MeToo in India: Former Taj Hotels employee accuses former CEO Rakesh Sarna of sexual harassment

A former assistant executive with the Taj Hotels has spoken out about the group's then CEO and MD Rakesh Sarna, accusing him of sexual harassment when she was an employee with the company in 2014.

Anjuli Pandit, who was initially working at Tata Sons in the then chairman Cyrus Mistry's office in 2014, was transferred to Sarna's office a year later as his executive assistant, on his request. According to a report by The Indian Express, Sarna's inappropriate advances towards Pandit began almost immediately, when they spoke on the phone to discuss her salary.

The report quoted Pandit as saying, "In December, we had an uncomfortable phone call to discuss my salary and when I wasn’t happy with his offer, Sarna said ‘I think you are beautiful enough to pay you a crore but I don’t have that kind of money honey.’ That was the first indication I had that something was not right."

MeToo in India Former Taj Hotels employee accuses former CEO Rakesh Sarna of sexual harassment

Representational image. Reuters

In an account of the ordeal Pandit wrote, "The sexual advances started with comments about the worth of my physical appearance during our salary discussions. Over the seven months he remarked on my looks, his attraction to me and his desire to have an affair. His advances were always verbal. And I was always clear — I was not interested. Whether I deflected, professionally requested, or burst into tears in frustration, he persisted. The environment became intolerable as we both lost our patience."

In the report, she detailed the various avenues she considered to tackle the problem, none of which resulted in appropriately effective and satisfactory action. However, she said that even though she "spent some time in denial, hoping he (Sarna) would let it go", the "incredible spirit" of her other colleagues at Taj "outweighed his disturbing comments".

She added, "They were respectful, hard-working, talented, and eager to make the Taj brand and service even greater. What would happen to that future they were trying to build if everyone knew the truth? Eventually, I was having migraines and sleepless nights."

Pandit tried to retain her job at Taj Hotels by approaching the Taj Board members, the Tata Group Executive Council members, and even the office of the chairperson. She was compelled to approach senior members of the company because the POSH (Prevention of Sexual Harassment) committee at Taj was headed by Sarna himself, with a few of his subordinates as the other members.

However, the only solution offered to her from all the people she approached was to quit. She wrote, "The only resolution they could find was to ask me to resign from Taj, immediately. They offered me a mediocre role in a Tata Sons back office, relegated to a desk without a phone, and no assurance of my career prospects. When I said I felt I was being unfairly sidelined for speaking up, the chairman told me this was the "best we can do"."

In November 2015, 11 months after she had joined Sarna's team, Pandit quit the company. In her resignation letter she wrote that a hostile work environment and "Sarna's repeated unwanted sexual advances" and prompted her to put in her papers.

Pandit's unpleasant experience with the company continued after she quit when, in November 2016, her resignation letter appeared in the media during the Cyrus Mistry-Ratan Tata faceoff.

Business Today reported that before Pandit's resignation, the senior management at the then Cyrus Mistry-led Tata Group had instituted an inquiry against Sarna, "which ultimately gave him a clean chit". Sarna continued in the organisation till 2017, when he quit citing personal reasons. The report said, "Whether the complaint played a role (in his resignation) is not known." Pandit claims that she never received the report of the inquiry's findings, even two years since she deposed against Sarna.

At the time of writing, Anjuli Pandit and Taj Hotels have not responded to Firstpost's queries. This article will be updated with their responses.

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