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You cannot outsource ethics

In the BPO sector, educating staff is a necessity in light of recent data theft exposes, reports R Srinivasan

india Updated: Nov 16, 2006 15:46 IST

In manyways, Pradeep Akkunoor’s life is a typical Indian GenNext success story. The son of an Indian Air Force serviceman, he worked his way through college for his computer engineering degree. Next stop: a crack at the Indian middle class dream — getting into one of the IIMs, bag the coveted MBA and, hopefully, live happily ever after.

It did not quite turn out that way. Not because he did not make the cut, but because he could not. The night before the IIM entrance test, Akkunoor heard that somebody was peddling IIM entrance test papers. He promptly blew the whistle. What is more, he even surrendered his hall ticket, so that the police, with the help of some journalists, could set up a decoy customer and nab the gang.He insisted he should be out of the limelight.

It was a stunning sacrifice for a boy from a middle income family from a small town. Especially since family circumstances did not allow Akkunoor the luxury of waiting another year for a second shot at his dream goal. MBA aspirations were given up.

Akkunoor, now a tech entrepreneur, never regretted his decision. Nevertheless, like whistle-blowers everywhere, he had to pay a price for having a conscience. As Professor Larry Ponemon, a specialist in business ethics and the man who created the compliance risk management practice at consulting giant Pricewaterhouse Coopers, warned a troubled executive on his website recently: “Be prepared. The consequences of your actions may be hard on you and your family. Most whistle-blowers suffer some sort of retaliation or punishment from their companies and co-workers.”

That is in the US, where most corporates have developed and strengthened protection for whistle-blowers post the Enron fiasco.

In India, though, the situation is troublingly different. Especially in the booming IT/BPO sector, which has been hit by a series of damaging exposes of data theft and fraud. A few more exposures could well derail India’s BPO juggernaut.

The National Association of Software and Services Companies (NASSCOM), estimates IT/BPO revenues for the current fiscal will be in the range of $33 billion to $36 billion. But it is not just the money. What is more troubling isthe industry’s response.

The kneejerk reaction has been to tighten controls on employees. Some of the measures are draconian. Many BPOs frisk employees, make them surrender all personal items and bar all non work-related telephonic or internet contact. Conversations are recorded and spy cameras are at work.

What they have not done is to create and institutionalise a system of educating their staff — many barely out of school or college — on ethics.

A spot poll conducted by Indiaforensic Consultancy Services among BPO workers in Pune, found that 90 per cent of the respondents were not only unaware of any whistle-blowing or fraud reporting system in their companies, but, were even unclear as to what constituted a fraud or a breach of ethical business practice.

In a belated move, NASSCOM has started the process of creating a self-regulatory body to oversee issues of data security and create standards for privacy and security.However, months after the announcement,the body is yet to take shape. Meanwhile, it could perhaps set the process in motion by creating anonymous phone- in helplines and a website or an e-mail id to help whistleblowers in India’s knowledge sector.

Email Ravi Srinivas:

First Published: Nov 16, 2006 15:46 IST