Network 18 Group says it’s a case of disgruntled employees

The last thing Forbes India Editor Indrajit Gupta expected to hear was that he was redundant. But that is what he was told by two people from the editorial and management of the Network18 group on May 27 when they offered him a severance plan which he refused to accept without having a discussion with his lawyers. But that request was summarily rejected, and when Mr. Gupta refused to resign, he was dismissed without assigning any reasons.

Mr. Gupta told The Hindu on Saturday that after him, Managing Editor Charles Assisi was forced to quit and the next day two others, Executive Editor Shishir Prasad and Director (Photography) Dinesh Krishnan met with the same fate. Mr. Krishnan and Mr. Prasad were told to sign letters absolving the company of all its dues in the form of Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP) and they would be offered a new value ESOP scheme, the details of which would be made available at a later date. Not willing to accept this opaque arrangement, both Mr. Prasad and Mr. Krishnan were forced to resign.

Mr. Assisi was told that his services would be terminated with immediate effect unless he signed on a pre-drafted resignation letter. Under duress, he was forced to sign on the resignation and full and final settlement letter. All four senior journalists have worked in Forbes since 2008 and have among them experience of more than 40 years. When they joined, their contracts specified fixed ESOPs which the company had underwritten and which they were entitled to after four years. However, after that period when the company showed no signs of paying up collectively an amount of roughly Rs. 2 crore, they took it up with the management. The human resources department followed up with the management for the first four years to no avail.

Mr. Gupta said the ESOPs were an integral part of the compensation plan and the company could not deny that. On May 27, when Mr. Gupta was called in to meet Editor-in-Chief R. Jagannathan and HR head Shampa Kochhar, he didn’t think that he would walk out without a job or a severance package. “It was a humiliating experience after having led the Forbes India team for over five years,” he said.

“This is absolutely unacceptable behaviour and this came as a complete shocker. When we started a conversation on ESOPs, we were told at one point that the Board had annulled it. We asked why we were not informed of it till we raised the issue,” he said.

How can the Board annul ESOPs unilaterally, asked Mr. Gupta. But it was caught out as there was an admission that ESOPs were promised at the time of employment. Since that had not been honoured, Mr. Gupta and the others had asked for monetary compensation in lieu of the ESOPs that would have vested in the four years of employment. On May 24 evening, the management sent them a nine-page document with a new ESOP scheme, which they had to sign by May 26 or it would lapse. Mr. Gupta said the new ESOPS were largely a dud scheme without any real value vested in them.

“We simply asked for commitments in our appointment letter made to us by the company to be honoured,” he pointed out. The termination move was arbitrary and high-handed, he added. Letters by the journalists to the company have gone unanswered and now the four are exploring legal options.

The Press Club, Mumbai, condemning the incident, said, “The method of ejecting them from the company was nothing short of shameful. Journalists are not only messengers of news and information, but are the collective voice of civil society. They have a special place in our democratic polity, especially in the current times of stress and confusion. Surely, this team of editors who has served Forbes India since 2008 deserved better.”

The statement added, “We don’t rule out changes in business plan the Forbes management may have wanted to make; but there is the way of discourse and negotiation. Editors with 15-25 years of experience cannot be forced out with a gun on their head. The episode has shocked journalists throughout the country and shown the Network18 Group in bad light. We will be writing to Mr. Mukesh Ambani, who has a special position of influence in the Media Group, as well as to Network18 Group’s chairman Raghav Bahl, to appeal to them to reverse this decision and to enter into discussion with the editors so that an amicable solution is found.”

In March, Network 18 group had appointed Mr. Jagannathan Editor-in-Chief of Print and Web publications which included Forbes India.

Ajay Chacko, chief operating officer, Network 18 group, told The Hindu on the phone that this story of ESOPs not being paid was circulated by people who were against the restructuring. For five years, no one talked about ESOPs. There was no question of not giving it to them. “All of this started popping up after the restructuring and integration of First Post and Forbes India and Mr. Jagannathan taking over as Editor-in-Chief. He is the head of the combined newsroom.”

Terming the allegations mudslinging, Mr. Chacko said three of the employees took their money and went home, only one of them (Mr. Gupta) did not. “I don’t understand the question of being unfair. I think it’s a case of disgruntled employees who didn’t take the restructuring well,” Mr. Chacko pointed out.

He said that if they want, they could take recourse to legal action. No one denied them ESOPs. “I am surprised at all these allegations. It’s primarily a case of an unhappy marriage. What is the point of all this? These are senior journalists, they have worked with Mr. Jagannathan in the past. They chose to leave,” he said.

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