In a Gender vs. CEO Lawsuit, Facts Are Sometimes Optional

According to a recent article in The Washington Post, Exlservices general counsel Nancy Saltzman, “a high-ranking lawyer says she was told to serve the cake. She complained, then she was fired.” Because the reporter accepted the plaintiff attorney’s version of the story, we can’t tell if the anecdote is true, half true, or not at all true.

In full disclosure, I previously served as EXLService board chair (why the story caught my eye) although I have not spoken to the CEO in over two decades. What also caused me to take notice was a willingness by The Washington Post to accept allegations made by the client’s attorney, despite an apparent conflict of interest. Traditional media once glared at stories like this with owl-like skepticism, but now feeds on them like a ravenous hyena. Blame it on clickbait headline that finds its way into Twitter and Facebook, then gets shared by the millions. Reporters are coin operated these days.

This is a prime example of why CEOs need to be extra vigilant about documenting their own workplace behavior and policy compliance. Rather than allow a disgruntled senior employee to fester in the ranks, better to terminate and pay severance. The alternative is to be tried by a biased media in the court of public opinion with a $20 million gender discrimination pricetag.

The plaintiff, Nancy Saltzman, was EXLservices’ General Counsel since 2014. She alleged that CEO Kapoor “personally directed her to ”serve cake to the Company’s junior male employees” at the company celebration of its 20th anniversary.

The cake serving anecdote may or may not be true, and it is far from proof of gender discrimination. The reason we don’t know what to believe is that fact-checking was awol: 1) no corroborating reports from any of the women in the ceremony. 2) The GC’s office is the ombudsman for discrimination. It made no sense to bring on a female general counsel if the company is a discriminator. 3) Was the role of host at a ceremony like this typical for this company or the GC? In my experience, some GCs like to micromanage company meetings, while others delegate. The article’s lack of fact checking makes it impossible to judge the veracity of the complaint.

In the days when I was the publisher of Forbes, my editor would send this back to the reporter for a background check of the plaintiff as well as the company. It might reveal an anomaly here or there, one that suggests this is nothing more than sour grapes or it might show a pattern of sexism. Either finding makes for a better article. You won’t find that here.

The complaint also uses too broad a brush to paint the company’s culture as sexist: “leadership was dominated by men.” The article goes on to quote plaintiff attorney Russell Kornblith: “the lack of diversity among Exl leadership was startling.” This is a serious charge, and while the company is Indian and has its own cultural customs, there is a sense, at least in this country, that some efforts should be made towards equality in the senior ranks.

But you don’t have to travel to India to see how hypocritical this is. Just take a look inside the newsroom of The Washington Post. The newspaper’s website shows the leadership in the newsroom is a lopsided 70% male (even accepting the paper’s tendency to inflate the title of ‘editor’ to include more women). A quick review of job postings for editors will show that placing women in editorial jobs is quite a bit simpler than finding IT experts in India. Yet the Post charges others with sexism that it practices at home.

Only in America, as they say.

The article fails to consider whether the plaintiff lawyer is conflicted (his 30% will amount to $7 million) yet publishes his version as if the Post were writing his press release. The deck is stacked against companies in an era of ‘bizlash’ when an infraction that can be lumped in with an identity faux pas is fodder for activists to politicians.

With a chance for both Nancy Saltzman and Russell Kornblith to split a cool $20 million, what else can one say about this: let them eat cake?

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Jeff Cunningham: Jeff Cunningham is Chief Executive magazine's editor-at-large and a professor of leadership at Arizona State University/Thunderbird School of Global Management, where he has also endowed the Cunningham Global Fellowship for next-generation leaders. He also is the founder of Thunderbird Opinions poll of business trends. He was previously publisher of Forbes Magazine and CEO of Zip2 (founded by Elon Musk). Watch his YouTube interviews at Iconic Voices and connect on Twitter @CunninghamJeff and LinkedIn.