Mukta Lad
May 11, 2021

#DetoxWork: Ad professionals make allegations against employers, agencies respond

The anonymous allegations range from agencies calling employees into work despite the alarming rise in Covid-19 cases to issuing fake ‘essential worker’ passes for commute to work

Pic credit: Unsplash
Pic credit: Unsplash
Recently, Cheil India and its biggest client, Samsung, were in hot water after the agency’s ex-employee – Rahul Bhatnagar – put up a LinkedIn post blaming the agency for keeping offices open in the middle of India’s raging second Covid-19 wave. He alleged that this led to two employee deaths while some more members of the staff were fighting for their lives. 
 
Bhatnagar didn’t name Cheil in the post itself but added #CheilIndia as a hashtag at the end. The post went viral, leading to #DetoxWork trending on LinkedIn. Several advertising industry professionals weighed in with their thoughts, calling out advertising’s age-old ‘toxic culture’ involving unrealistic deadlines and client expectations, poor time management, general disregard and lack of processes leading to poor work-life balance, which all end up affecting employees’ physical and mental health. These factors have further been compounded by the pandemic, with work from home blurring the lines between personal and professional time more than ever. 
 
 
After the tragic deaths of Cheil India’s employees, several people anonymously approached Campaign India to share their own stories – alleging how they have been at the receiving end of unempathetic, exploitative practices at their workplaces during the pandemic. 
 
Campaign India has documented the allegations and reached out to the concerned agencies. Published below are the allegations and agency statements in full, without any editing. 
 
Korra Worldwide
 
Allegations: 
 
- Employees were asked to resume working from office since January 2021. Several employees resisted the idea citing reasons of safety and regardless, the office was reopened. The email also mentions how coming to office should be added to a list of things people have been doing, including getting married, meeting friends and going to multiplexes. 
 
 
- An official email was assuring employees of social distancing and following all COVID safety protocol guidelines. However, these were not strictly followed, with group brainstorms being conducted in conference rooms and employees being allowed to do normal activities eat lunch together. Neither was office layout changed to physically distance employees from each other. 
 
- In multiple brainstorms, a co-founder was quoted to have said “We get an adrenaline rush when we brainstorm in office.” 
 
- Employees were working well into the second wave (till April 19th) till the lockdown was officially announced in Delhi and Gurgaon. Staff was also being sent for shoots and other activities that involved a large gathering of people.
 
- Covid positive patients in the office were asked not to inform their colleagues, especially the ones they’ve come in contact with. This was to ‘curb the spread of panic’. Resultantly, several more people have tested positive, and they have spread the virus to their families as well. Some family members are also said to be seriously ill. 
 
- There have been no office-sponsored facilities for employees in the office to get tested regularly. 
 
- The management began taking corrective steps only after multiple employees tested positive, and office had to be shut down. Steps include procuring two oxygen cylinders for a staff strength of over 100, and a WhatsApp group where employees can help each other with leads for beds, oxygen, medicines, etc. 
 
The official statement by Gaurav Nabh, founder and CEO at Korra Worldwide: 
 
Before, we share our response to some of the points mentioned in your mail, wanted to share with you the fact that we as a young company founded four years ago have managed to create in this brief time, a culture of empathy and energy. We have tried to run Korra in a manner where nothing is more important, to us, than our people and their well-being. After all they are the driving and building force behind the organisation. 
 
Covid-19 has been a difficult time for all of us and throughout this period (since April 2020) we have done everything to ensure our people's safety and well-being. Just so you know, last year despite a tough year business wise, we have not asked a single employee to go, we have paid salaries on time and we have not deducted or rolled back any salaries. Not just that we have also disbursed increments this year.
 
In addition, we have been insisting on employees maintaining a healthy work life balance as well as taking care of their mental wellness. We are encouraging and requesting our employees to get vaccinated at the earliest and have promised to take care of the Covid vaccination expense not just for themselves but their entire family.
 
Now let me try and address some of the concerns raised.
 
On asking employees to join back office in Jan 2021: As you are aware much before Jan 2021 the govt of both Delhi and Gurgaon had lifted the lockdown and had allowed for offices to open again. Many agencies and companies of our size and also our clients had opened up offices partially, while ensuing necessary protocols. During this time we received request from our people to allow them to come to office and work from there as working from home was both inconvenient and non-viable for some of them. Therefore, as the lockdown was lifted we opened the office partially and at no stage was the entire office asked to resume work from office. Accordingly, a communication was sent (the email you are referring to) and here I would like to reiterate that it was sent only to a small group of approximately 10 people from the account management team. For your reference Korra employees over 100 people at our Gurgaon facility. Even those 10 odd people were given option to state their convenience in joining and adjustments were made in case they were facing issues. As a matter of fact a few members from this group started coming to office much later only in Feb / March.
 
Steps taken to ensure safety: Even before any of our team members came to work, we had started following a strict protocol as directed by the authorities and also followed by most companies. These included - daily thorough sanitation of office included fumigation, cleaning of all surfaces with disinfectants, mandatory temperature checks & sanitisation upon entry in the premises. Several posters were put in key locations throughout the office encouraging people to wear mask and maintain social distancing. Even for group virtual calls, people were encouraged to not come together and join calls from different rooms across the office. Group brainstorming were discouraged and we continued to connect virtually even after being present in the same location. 
 
Cofounder statement: This is baseless and no such statement was made. 
 
Covid protocols and guidelines: Work from Home for those who were coming to work was announced in the week of 12th April through a townhall to be effective from the 19th of April. Having said that, even during that period only 10 – 15 came to office while observing requisite precautions. Everyone was asked to work from home with immediate effect post the townhall. An email to this effect was sent out on the 16th April. This was as per the guidelines issued by the authorities. Shoots were monitored from our office remotely. In the special occasion of someone’s presence being imperative (at the shoot) this was done after COVID testing. Even at the shoot location, all govt and association guidelines and protocols were followed. 
 
On learning of any Covid case, the employee was asked to stay at home, take care, quarantine themselves, and focus on getting better. No information was withheld at any stage. Even before the lock down / work from home was announced, employees were told not to come to work if they were feeling unwell or even had the most minor of symptoms and were asked to get themselves tested. 
 
Further, to ensure full support to our employees and their families a Covid support group was set up which has since then provided constant and round-the-clock help and support to our employees. This group is still active and offering support to all our people and their families. Also senior members of Korra are personally involved and responding to request for help or information. Going above and beyond and keeping our employees’ health and safety paramount, we are constantly working towards making possible arrangements, such as providing oxygen cylinders, sharing information on oxygen beds & medicines availability  and have also placed orders for Oxygen concentrators. These are available for anyone at work (not just for their own use but also their families). We continue to stay in touch with our people and seek suggestions on what we more cane be done to better support and ensure safety of all our employees.
 
For us, our people come first, and we are constantly trying to improve our effort in helping our people in this difficult time. We shall continue to push ourselves to do more and whatever it takes to ensure their safety and comfort. 
 
RepIndia 
 
A internal screenshot from RepIndia’s WhatsApp group has been doing the rounds on social media. It is as below:
 
Campaign India reached out to RepIndia for an official statement after it was sent to us by multiple sources. 
 
 
Official statement: 
 
Fact Check Please:
 
1. This was an unfortunate and unofficial message sent on February 20, 2021. At a time where there was no lockdown and most offices were open. RepIndia has on the other hand allowed work from home since March 2020.
 
2. The servicing account executive who sent this email was reprimanded and addressed by Human Resources at RepIndia, and apologised to every single member of the 280 people team following this instance. He is the same person who has also done incredible amounts for his fellow team during and before the COVID crisis. And it’s not fair to take his one message which he apologised for and destroy his reputation and career
 
3. Let’s talk about what Repindia has done through the lockdown?
 
- Last four months salaries paid earlier than promised
- Advances given and appraisals, loans for any medical emergencies
- A mental health break for 4 days
- Counselling sessions over the last year for a number of individuals who needed them
- Personally assisted employees in getting beds and procuring meds for themselves and their families and loved ones
- One of Delhi’s largest help and aid pages was created and run by 60 Repindia’s and people from other agencies where we have helped our own and those across India in procuring oxygen and beds: 
 
Digital Refresh Networks: Allegations, and statement by Barin Mukherjee, co-founder and CEO
 
CI: Employees were asked to come to work till April 5 2021, well into the COVID-19 second wave, till the office building was declared closed
 
This is absolutely incorrect. Since January 2021, most of our employees were working from home and a select few had the option to come into office, in shifts, as per guidelines and protocols specified by the authorities. 
 
In mid-March 2021, given the rising number of cases due to the second wave of COVID-19, we took pre-emptive action and shut our offices from the 22nd of the month. To allow for employees to collect their personal belongings as well as professional tools, since we were unsure how long this phase would last and had to prepare for a longer work from home schedule for all, we kept the office open from April 1st to April 3rd, so that this could happen in batches. As an organisation, DRN believes in putting people first, and their safety and security is paramount.
 
CI: Fake ‘essential worker’ passes issued to employees so they can take public transport and come to work without being questioned
 
This is completely false and baseless. As mentioned earlier, we have strictly followed every guideline made by the Government. Hence, making a statement that the company has issued ‘fake essential worker’ passes, for employees to come to work, is misleading and untrue. The DRN management does not approve of any behaviour or action that flouts governmental norms and compromises the safety of the individual in question.
 
CI: Employees coming into work had to struggle with malfunctioning wi-fi and low speeds, thereby work taking longer to complete. 
 
It is true that there were days when we faced challenges with internet speeds being provided in our office. Wi-Fi speeds and internet connectivity are the prerogative of the telecom service providers, and given the pandemic, some glitches took longer than expected to fix. 
 
CI: 30% salary cuts announced in the middle of the pandemic. In November, there was the introduction of a ‘Competency Structure’, where the chopped 30% was unilaterally converted into variable pay structure.  
 
Given the business challenges due to the pandemic, the management had the choice to either cut jobs or ask employees to take a temporary cut in salaries. We shared this collectively through townhalls, and individually through one-on-one interactions, with our employees, and explained the rationale behind it. As a unit, the team rallied around this effort, and this short-term initiative of reducing salaries helped sustain several jobs that would have unfortunately been lost.
 
It is also important to highlight that throughout the pandemic, we rewarded meritorious employees on the basis of their performance. We were also amongst the first companies to prepone the appraisal and increment process to January 2021, to allow for employees to make up for some of the lost wages, basis merit and performance.
 
It is untrue that we converted salaries to a variable structure for all our employees. 
 
CI: Salaries were cut even for employees who needed funds for COVID treatments
 
This is a false statement. The company not only reinstated the salaries, but paid it in advance to employees who reached out to us, when either they or their family members tested positive for COVID-19. 
 
CI: 6-7 new employees were hired despite salary cuts
 
During the pandemic, we continued to hire people for roles that were either specialised, or were needed to manage ongoing business commitments. In many instances, such hires were also replacements of existing positions. In fact, several applicants were those who had lost their jobs due to the pandemic, and we viewed such applications favourably.
 
CI: Salary delays are currently ongoing where monthly compensation is paid late and further divided into two instalments. 
 
Given economic setbacks that happened due to the pandemic, the business has suffered cash flow challenges. However, we have always prioritised the welfare of our employees.  For a couple of months, we had to split our salaries into two tranches, but whenever we could, salaries were paid in one shot, and before the month began – which was more often than not. Even during this phase, if any of our employees were in need of funds for a critical reason, we made sure that they were their full payment in one go. We have always believed in maintaining transparency with our co-workers, and did highlight the issue to our employees explaining the situation at hand. 
 
CI: Employees hired remotely during the lockdown were fired/asked to resign for not moving to Mumbai when the pandemic situation improved for a few months. 
 
Ever since the first lockdown in 2020 was lifted, we have operated on a hybrid working model, where some key stakeholders came to office to work, and others came in only when required by their reporting managers, while maintaining the protocols and guidelines set by the government from time-to-time. If employees were not delivering on the job at hand, they were given chances to improve, and their services were terminated only if they failed to show any improvement in their role, or were unable to work with the teams to deliver the client’s requirements.
 
CI: No monetary reimbursement offered to employees asked to travel during the lockdown. 
 
This statement is untrue. In fact, people who were travelling from afar were compensated through a private taxi service, paid for by the company, should they have required to come to office for any reason. 
 
CI: A few employees still haven't received their full & final settlements that have been pending since November 2020 
 
This is not true - as on 30th April 2021, there is no employee whose F&F that was due has not been paid. 
 
Grapes Digital: Allegations, and statement by Himanshu Arya, founder and CEO
 
CI: An email was issued by you laying down the context for some business decisions. This email includes asking employees to redirect the time they would take to commute to office, into working extra hours from home. Effectively, this equates to increasing a typical 9-hour work-day stretching into 11 hours.
 
The question is referring back to an email dated 3rd April 2020, which I had circulated amongst all our employees requesting everyone’s support and to stand tall together in tough times. The request was to put in hard work and help sail through the last year’s lockdown. The WFH scenario was a first for all of us, the pandemic bought in uncertainty and hence strategies were being devised to ensure client delight and keep everything intact. 
 
Sharing a screenshot as a reference. 
 
 
 
Just reiterating, the overall context is a humble request to all employees to support during tough times where Grapes lost a couple of clients who immediately actioned Force Majeure and walked out of the contract. Like every other business we were ensuring we stayed afloat and sailed through uncertain and unprecedented times.
 
- Salary cuts were announced citing business being affected due to the pandemic. While the salary slips reflect the cut, no official communication in writing was given to employees in writing about the amount that would be deducted under the proposed cut. 
 
Yes, salary cuts were announced, as officially documented on the email screenshot shared above. We further conducted a group wise townhall to inform and explain to all our employees the extent of the damage and how we will all need to bear with slight discomfort, given the situation in the industry that we all were facing. 
 
Salary cuts were implemented with the following logic:
 
No salary cuts for Employees below Rs. 20,000/- per month salary 
Lower salary deductions for employees in the Salary range of Rs. 20,000/- to Rs. 50,000/- to ensure that lower funnel is protected and that’s the majority number: This only happened for April-June 2020 (3 months), From 1st July 2020 full salaries were restored
People at higher salary took larger cuts to help the people at lower salaries, this happened from April-August 2020 (5 months), from 1st September 2020, full salaries were restored across the organisation
 
By the time IPL/ Diwali kicked in and Business started taking off (business became profitable again), Grapes paid back all the salary deductions to all employees on 12th November 2020. This was our way of appreciating and showing gratitude to all our employees who were loyal and stood by our side when times were tough. 
 
Furthermore, as an employer we kicked off appraisals for 2019-20 in the month of November 2020 (at regular cycle this would have been April 2020). The process was only for eligible employee. 
 
Arrears for appraisals were paid to employees from 1st April 2020 as it would have been in a normal scenario. People who stayed back and showed trust in the organisation further benefitted from our employee centric policies.
 
Please refer below screenshots for the above announcements as an official proof:
 
 
Our Communication to all on 15th July in our monthly newsletter for restoring back salary for 87% of employees:
 
 
Our Communication to all in September Newsletter we announced on restoring back 100% of Salary for all employees and thanking them for the support of everyone.
 
 
 
Our communication to all on 20th November Newsletter where we have paid arrears that were deducted (April to August 2020), for which we received so many happy messages from our Employees. We also formally kicked off Appraisals for 2020 which was due from 1st April 2020.
  
 
 
Our communication to all on 16th March in our Monthly Newsletter where Appraisals have been concluded for 2020, Appraisals being announced for 2021 and Arrears have been paid out to all employees on 3rd March 2021 (for Last year of 2020 from 1st April 2020)
 
We understood that times were tough and working in the scenario was not easy. As a gesture of gratitude and to make our employees feel special, we at Grapes released the December 2020 salary on 24th December 2020. This was initiated without any attendance records and regularization by HR and was done in good faith. 
 
CI: Office was reopened in October or November 2020 only for employees who were comfortable coming in. Employees were then asked, starting February, which months they would be alright coming to office in, so the office could run at 33% capacity in any given month. However, employees volunteering to return in the earlier months continued to work in the subsequent months as well, thereby having an office that was running at 100% even in April.
 
Grapes has offices in Mumbai and Delhi, below are our remarks on the same:
 
Mumbai Office:
 
Our office was shut from 18th March 2020 and till date it continues to be shut, no employee of Grapes in Mumbai location has attended the office physically since 18th March 2020
 
Delhi Office:
 
Our office was totally shut from 18th March 2020 to 30th Sep 2020.
 
From 1st October 2020 we started opening our office physically and only people who were facing issues in working from home and voluntarily wanted to come to office and work, started attending the office. Total number on any day would be 1-3 people at max from an overall workforce of around 150+ in Delhi
 
We conducted an internal survey with all our employees on 13th Jan 2021, where we gave employees various options on when they felt it was safe to resume back work from office:
 
1st Feb 2021
1st March 2021
1st April 2021
 
Below is the screenshot of the Poll result:
 
 
People who didn’t respond to this Poll were automatically put in the 1st April 2021 rollout plan.
 
Further Hybrid Strategy was adopted since we had larger chunk of people Joining in April, people were given deferred joining dates at weekly intervals.
 
Post this poll we made a staggered opening plan which was then shared by HR to all employees basis the choices made by them:
 
 
Also, we never communicated and committed to 33% team strength. Grapes Delhi office has a seating capacity of over 200 work stations + 8 Conference rooms, even at 100% capacity we could have easily maintained social distancing measures, below is how rollout was communicated to various business heads for their teams by HR:
 
 
Office was formally opened only on 1st Feb 2021 for Employees after an internal poll conducted with all employees as per there comfort level and no forceful implementation was done at Grapes. 
 
CI: Several employees made calls to HR personnel in March 2021 because they felt unsafe about returning to work (because of cases were on the rise, traveling by public transport was unsafe and the fear of spreading COVID to families). These employees were asked to shift to the Saket area closer to office or quit their jobs if they couldn’t be physically present. Further, some employees who did not show up to work had their employment contracts terminated citing ‘working from home wasn’t a policy’.
 
There were multiple exceptions given to various team members, many team members planned as per their convenience and HR supported them fully in the process.
 
It was only for 3 employees at Grapes who committed to join office on 1st April and started making excuses on 31st March 2021. The uncertainty and invalid excuses made by these 3 employees was making the mockery of overall system, they were then asked to quit Grapes on 3rd April 2021, as the intent was lacking to resume back to office at any given point of time. The lack of clarity in commitment and communication lead us to take the decision. 
 
Below are the screenshots on how one of them was learning how to drive, delayed her joining (from 1st march to 1st April) on context of the same, but choose to come via metro on 1st April and created panic:
 
 
Out of 3 people who were told to resign, when spoken to, two of them apologised and one of them pulled back the resignation as well, have a look at below screenshot:
 
 
Furthermore, when we opened on 1st April 2021 there were close to 50+ employees who were given exception on delayed joining, since they wanted more time to figure out their last-minute hassles.
 
Some employees were also given the approval to join in the month of May 2021, as late as 5th May 2021 where they had personal reasons to cite. Our HR and management team fully supported and gave them the levy by understanding the situation. 
 
 
From 1st April 2021 to 6th April 2021 Grapes Delhi Office operated at 50% capacity and this was clearly basis the exceptions given by the HR supporting every employee in every possible way. 
 
- About 8-12 employees have tested positive in the office. Further, the Grapes Digital management did not reveal to employees the full number of people that had fallen ill (they said only two people were positive). 
 
Our plan to open the office started in January 2021 and we stuck to our plan of phased Delhi office opening till 6th April 2021.
 
Below is the sequence of events:
 
Feb 2021: Average Employee Headcount in Delhi was under 20 
March 2021: Average Employee Headcount in Delhi was under 30 
Thursday, 1st April 2021: Employee Headcount in Delhi was 72
Friday, 2nd April 2021: Employee Headcount in Delhi was 72
Monday, 5th April 2021: Employee Headcount in Delhi 94 (people took exceptions again to join from Monday)
 
Yes, they were 2 Covid cases that were reported in the office and we were informed about the same around 3 PM on Monday, 5th April 2021 by our CD. Two girls in his team tested positive and they attended office on Friday, 2nd April 2021. 
 
Within 1 hour of this information, RT PCR was arranged for all employees by 6.00 PM in our Delhi office, reports were speeded up for employees who were in direct contact of these girls and was also told to not come to office on Tuesday, 6th April 2021
 
Below is my message to all employees on the afternoon of Monday, 5th April 2021 making them aware of the situation and defining the next steps for everyone’s wellbeing:
 
 
Further screenshot explains where we identified everyone who came in contact with employees who tested positive. They were further requested to self-isolate themselves on Immediate basis and to work from Home for 1 week starting Tuesday, 6th April 2021
 
Tuesday, 6th April 2021: Employee Headcount was Delhi 62 (anyone who felt scared was given work from home, this was over and above 15 identified people for whom it was made mandatory to Work for home), as reports came in by evening, we had 3 more employees who tested positive in Media + Video Team, these were people were not in touch with these girls and were immediately were told to leave office using a private vehicle.  Also, when these employees were tested again after 1 week, all 3 of them were false positive as realised later.
The reports were shared directly to individual employees by the Diagnostics Lab, in no circumstance Grapes could have hidden any information about anyone, as everyone knew each other reports. 
 
On 6th April 2021, Our Delhi office was shut and still continues to be shut.
 
Grapes Delhi office practically only opened for only 4 days (1st April, 2nd April, 5th April and 6th April of 2021) since it was shut down on 18th March 2020. Further no Government mandated laws were broken and were followed beyond the minimum guidelines issued.
 
CI: On April 6, 2021 in the middle of the second wave, as per an email by Mr Nitin Broota (head of HR), employees would have been asked to ‘report back to work on the same day’ if they couldn’t ensure high quality of work. This email also did not allow employees to take any last-minute time off for any reason.
 
We were facing multiple professional issues from certain employees on absenteeism and quality of work and overall ownership where employees were leaving messages on WhatsApp of their non-availability at Nth hour and the overall work was suffering. 
 
We also had people on online Calls, where they were not mentally present as they were not responding to questions asked to them in particular, also they continued to stay on calls for many minutes even after calls concluded.
 
Multiple team members on the same client choose to take parallel leaves (without any prior information) making work deliveries suffer.
 
Below are some messages:
 
 
This was seen as a people problem at Grapes and was raised by multiple managers, seeing this as an issue, the message. Our HR Head wrote to all employees on the evening of Tuesday, 6th April 2021 and communicated about the current situation, shutting down our office and putting processes in place for such issues not to repeat in future:
 
 
Please read the above email, now with the overall scenario clarification. 
 
Further, this was being used as stick and not really the scenario which would ever be exercised given our employee well-being sensitivity.
 
No employee was told to attend Delhi office post 6th April 2021 and who so ever came in voluntarily was to collect some personal belongings or computers/ laptops. Even for most employees 3rd Party delivery services were used to deliver Hardware to their homes.
 
While I have given you all the facts explaining my side of the story, please further see on how we are taking care of our employees at Grapes:
 
 
This was being planned in last week and as latest as yesterday, this was documented on email on 9th May and further rolled out to all our employees at Grapes on 10th May 2021:
 
 
 
 
Grapes is a bootstrapped and a hard-working organization with strong work ethics. 
We are in an industry that never sleeps, however, our employees have always been our priority, and at the same time we ensure flawless deliveries to all our clients. 
 
Every company has certain work ethics that they follow, while some employees seamlessly fit in the organizational culture while some find it tough. Performance is a also a key factor in any given normal circumstances. These allegations are clearly staged by a distressed ex-employee and is not falling in place with reality. 
 
Having said that, we know times are tough and we aren’t perfect either, but in our senses we have tried to be as humane as possible and always thought of People before Profit not only during the pandemic but before as well. 
 
If your workplace has flouted any Covid-19 norms, enforced any rules that have helped the spread of Covid, withheld information about Covid positive patients in the office, announced paycuts without written communication, etc., drop in an email to campaigneditorial@haymarket.co.in. We ensure complete anonymity. 
 

 

Source:
Campaign India

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