The former Editor of Forbes India, Indrajit Gupta, and two other senior staff members sent legal notices to Network 18 and the New York-based Forbes Media last week, demanding immediate reinstatement, settlement of dues and damages for loss of livelihood, reputation, and mental harassment. Apart from Mr. Gupta, Managing Editor Charles Assisi and Director of Photography Dinesh Krishnan returned the cheques that were given to them as full and final settlement after they were forced to resign in May. The fourth person, Executive Editor Shishir Prasad, has chosen not to fight the case.
The notices have made Steve Forbes — Chairman and Editor-in-Chief — and William Adamopoulos — CEO Asia — of Forbes Media LLC respondents, so that they are aware of the poor corporate governance practices using the Forbes brand as a crutch, said Mr. Gupta. The Forbes India magazine is published by the Network18 group under license from Forbes Media.
The notices were sent on June 18, but so far he said there has been no response from the Network18 group. On May 27, Mr. Gupta was told he was redundant and offered a severance plan, which he rejected. When he refused to resign, he was dismissed. Following his exit, Mr. Assisi, Mr. Krishnan and Mr. Prasad were forced to resign after being told to sign letters absolving the company of all its dues in the form of Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP). The four employees had demanded payment of 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. two crore, they took it up with the management.
While Network 18 denied that ESOPs was the issue and claimed that it was the restructuring and integration of First Post and Forbes India that had irked the four employees, the employees contended that the monetary benefit in the forms of ESOPs should have been paid to them. Each of the employees said that according to the compensation package, ESOPs were also promised with an underwritten assured minimum value which was clearly distinct from the ordinary ESOPs offered to employees. They were also told “that since the company was collaborating with Forbes in launching the magazine, the company would maintain the same high standards of corporate governance as that of Forbes.”
The notices sent by Indus Law on behalf of the journalists said that they were told that the company would ensure that its growth and vision would be guided by transparency and fairness in its actions with all stakeholders including the employees. The journalists performed their duties and contributed significantly to the growth of the magazine. Unfortunately, the ESOPs, in the form of which the monetary benefit was to be passed on, were never issued, and the company did not pay the assured benefit despite the lapse of four years either, and failed to live up to its promises, the notice said.
When the employees persisted, a new dud ESOP scheme was offered and the company gave them 48 hours to accept the offer. There was no reasonable opportunity provided to consult any attorney. The new ESOP scheme was nothing but a sham, and an unlawful and malafide attempt to renege from the promise that the company had made to pay the fixed underwritten amount. It was highly vague, opaque and nowhere close to what was promised initially, the notice said.
During the meeting on May 27, when Mr. Gupta requested for some time to study the severance package and involve his lawyers, Shampa Kochhar, Group Director, Human Resources, stated that the new ESOP Scheme was deemed to have lapsed for non-acceptance and refused to grant him any time or opportunity to evaluate his options. When Mr. Gupta said that he could not be made to resign, his services were terminated by a letter dated May 27, addressed by Ms. Kochhar, with immediate effect, on the ground that his services were “no longer required by the company.”
The three employees have charged the company with victimisation, harassment and humiliation. They contend that their summary dismissal was in violation of Working Journalist and Other Newspaper Employees (Conditions of Service) and Miscellaneous Provisions Act, 1955 and the Industrial Disputes Act.
In the case of Mr. Assisi and Mr. Krishnan, the notices also said that the resignations under duress and coercion were invalid, and the action of the company in not allowing them to continue to work amounted to termination without cause. The notices have been sent to Ajay Chacko, Chief Operating Officer, Network18 Group, R. Jagannathan, Editor-in-Chief, Web & Publishing, Ms. Kochhar, Kshipra Jatana, Group General Counsel, B. Sai Kumar, Group CEO, Mr. Forbes, and Mr. Adamopoulos.