Millennium Post

Employer overreach

A professor forced to quit over her swimsuit-clad social media pictures kindles a debate over interference of employers into workers’ private lives

Employer overreach

I love my alma mater; I really do. One might even say that I consider it as the true starting point of my life and career. I respect the motto 'Nihil Ultra'; the Latin phrase meaning 'Nothing Beyond' that has propelled my life as it meandered through its various milestones taking both the ups and downs as par for the course. There is a sense of pride at belonging to an alumnus that boasts of some of the best minds of India and a community of high achievers from various spheres. I always remember St. Xavier's College, and now autonomous University, with fondness. But this week has been an embarrassment to most Xaverians; a row created over a matter that should have been nipped in the bud. An assistant professor was allegedly coerced to resign for posting swimsuit pictures on her private Instagram, and then slapped with a lawsuit by the university that has sought Rs 99 crores in damages. The matter that has been brewing since October last year has only since been brought to light after the professor sent a legal notice to the university in March seeking her reinstatement and apology.

There are so many reasons to feel affronted by this case. As a woman, I feel distressed hearing about the slut-shaming that the professor had to endure in front of her peers and other unknown individuals. A Spanish Inquisition for wearing a bikini?! Her pictures were taken from a time well before she even joined the university and have been clearly screenshot from a private account. This raises the important issue of violation of privacy. That a student or parent, and in this case, both, were judging the pictures of an individual is disgusting; but to make their discomfiture the basis of a formal complaint against a professor is untenable. I can't help but feel sorry for the 18-year-old kid and the life he's had to bear, left at the mercy of parents who complain about a professor's attire rather than focus on her work. If the young fellow was gawking at the photos, it could mean many things — he's come of age, needs to be told to respect women even if he was fantasizing about them, and the situation perhaps called for a father-son adult chat; not hang out the professor to dry! All of these were reason enough for the university to quash this complaint the moment it came to them. Not print out the pictures without the professor's permission, circulate it among its staff, and then launch a witch-hunt.

During our times studying at the college, we have had our fair share of sanctimonious Jesuit priest teaching staff who have chastised the female students for wearing sleeveless tops to the campus. A strict, almost regressive dress code, has always been followed on campus for men and women. But to think they would now overreach and intrude into an individual's personal life off-campus (in my mind whether her Instagram account was private or public should be of no consequence) to bludgeon their career prospects is appalling. An institute, company, or organisation has no right to harass an employee for dressing, speaking, or behaving in a certain way outside of work premises, unless it disrupts the law and order of the land or besmirches the reputation of the employer. Today, a professor was allegedly compelled to leave, tomorrow an individual with different sexual preferences may also be given the same treatment. And it doesn't matter if the person wasn't technically fired. Making them feel harassed, insulted, sexually objectified, and treated unprofessionally creates a toxic work environment that's enough for any self-respecting person to quit.

Who has the right to decide what an adult does in their own life is right or wrong as long as it's legal? Where are the freedoms that we speak of? The rights that are taught in the hallowed corridors of still-independent educational institutes? Where young minds are lessoned to question and nurture a curious mind...where is that institute now? This is not the college I knew. And as I understand the alumnus is on its way to correct this injustice. But the situation, as bizarre as it may be, begets the question — how much can the authorities/state interfere in an individual's personal life? And how much ground are we prepared to concede?

Censoring individuals on social media started long ago in India. It became taboo to criticize governments and politicians; journalists in some media houses were issued a whip to only post kosher comments. Arresting people for their thoughts on social media has become so commonplace that many governments have done it.

Obviously, this week's write-up is a personal one for me. Think of how you'd feel to see your beloved hero fail or have an icon fall from grace. While I firmly believe that this brouhaha will die down and justice will be meted out; I can't help but feel gutted and ashamed. There is a video on the St. Xavier's University YouTube channel. Though uploaded 3 years ago, with its Star Wars-like opening crawl easily seems from the 80s or 90s. It goes on to explain that 'Nihil Ultra' means 'without limit', 'infinite', 'unending', and reflects "the spirit of our lives, the rhythm of our Universe, the refrain of our times, because 'Nihil Ultra' also means development, advancement, betterment." The Vice Chancellor sure needs a refresher course and this video would be a great place to start in the 75th year of our Independence.

The writer is an author and media entrepreneur. Views expressed are personal

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