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Panic In The Time Of Recession

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Siv Krishnan drove through the crowded streets with his dentist's words echoing in his head. Siv was running 20 minutes late for his appointment, but the soft-spoken, goateed Dr Ray had said, "Don't worry, take your time. And drive carefully!"

Siv pondered over Dr Ray. What made some people calm and poised, unhurried and unrushed? Ray could have, like many people, shovelled the problem right back on him — "I cannot help you if there is a traffic jam. I have other patients; you should have left earlier…" No. Dr Ray did not shovel back. How did he manage? What did he do to manage?

Yet, now driving back to work, Siv himself was far from calm; in fact, he felt he was driving into the eye of the typhoon he had abandoned yesterday, when, exhausted by the variety of feelings unleashed before him, he had receded like a spent wave and gone home to escape the frustration and hopelessness. And now he reflected: there are people who are work-oriented — they suffer when profits fall, when brands fail; some are relationships-oriented, like Hanif — they suffer to keep family well provided; some are led by attitude, like Rishi — they see loss as a personal attack; or as a simple event that is endured, like Sunny.

Debbil India, where Siv was the vice-president HR, was laying off staff. Not that recession necessarily meant lay offs, but Debbil had two very old plants where refurbishing was prohibitively expensive, neither could these be shut down. To contain the bleeding, some cost cuts were demanded by the CEO. One such was people costs.

No sooner had the CEO mentioned cuts to numbers, the buzz had picked up at the company. Dissension and debate had begun between line managers and HR over the ‘list'. Siv cautioned them repeatedly: there was no such list, they would wait till the CEO had finalised the plan.

If Siv thought this talk was confined to the board room, he was mistaken. Informally, the employees picked up a lot of ‘talk' and seniors began to make ‘moves'. In different parts of the organisation, groups collected and whispered sadly, angrily, and astonished. The source of ‘information' was never clear, but everyone just ‘knew' what was going on.

The first trigger came from Stanley in admin, who told his assistant Murthy "cancel the indent for new furniture… 5-6 cubicles are going to fall spare next year, so…!" At lunch he let out: "Kuchh hone wala hai… Stanley has cancelled orders for new cubicles with Rodeo Modular… saying something about not being needed anymore…!" Arpita Sinha in PR took this back to her boss and said, "People are talking! I want to know if my job is under the axe, so I can start looking around!" Head of PR Josy Verghese went to Gopi Pandya, the marketing head, and said, "Unusual, but the staff are talking already! Does that mean lists are floating around without our knowledge? We must have a right to decide who stays and who does not!"

Gopi: Can't be helped. (Then calling Finance) "Yaar Sanjay, next year's budget proposals are open yet, no? Replace my car, buddy! What? How do you mean? Ten managers less? Who told you?" (Then calling CEO's secretary) "Arre Jenny, what is this bhai? Ten managers less next year? Who is going? But the people budget is yet open, no? Of course I got the news from Finance. You mean you don't know? Arre this is disturbing Jenny, we guys need to know! So far talk was staff is being laid off…!"

The sense of doom at Debbil was almost audible. A buzz was in the air. Everyone sensed something was going on, but nobody could tell what it was. Of course, the air had been thick for long with news from the US. The newspapers anyway downloaded a lot of grim news daily, with tiny boxes on ‘Doctors claim rampant increase in high blood pressure'.

Last week, Kalpa Mehta had run into HR's Sirishbhai at the water fountain. Kalpa and Sirish were buddies as both took the 8.03 Borivili fast. "You had better look after aapro Dhanesh," he whispered. "He will need help, he may be asked to go." Kalpa's eyes bulged. "What makes you say so?" she asked. Sirishbhai, who balanced the payroll account every month, had been asked to calculate Dhanesh's superannuation losses if he was to leave in 2009. (It was a completely different matter that Siv was planning to migrate employees of certain tenure to a newer system.)

So when Sirishbhai explained and concluded with a Q.E.D. and a clip of his fingers, Kalpa grew silent. Now what that did was highlight the doom for Kalpa, but did not tell her if she was going too. At the end of the day, people wanted to know what their own fate was going to be. So it was that she stood there in stony silence, staring at the blue star on the water cooler, much after Sirishbhai had left.


Elsewhere, Rohit Vaidya to admin head: "Stan, I understand you have been told to suspend car purchases? Is my name on the list?

Stanley: What list? I have no access to any list. If there is a list, I too can be on it! Ha-ha! Don't worry baba, naya job to mil jaayega!

Rohit to Kalpa: These guys are undermining the whole thing! No harm in being sensitive! Different times mean different decisions, but the company should be sensitive! Rationale is everywhere ‘times are bad, revenue growth poor'…but they should know the impact!

Kalpa: Yes! (Narrating Dhanesh's story), Debbil is trying to minimise the impact by saying these cute things. ‘Look after him'! But do they understand Dhanesh's feelings? No, because HR is itself in denial! I am really angry!

Elsewhere Sudhir Varma (Varmaji), personal secretary of the CEO, was reading a news report on swine flu. CEO Ranjan Bali had two secretaries, Jennifer, who looked after the business side of his work, and Varmaji looked after his personal life: school fees, booking tickets, managing vacations, following up booster shots, etc. Reading the article he shook his head. "‘Only 4 deaths until now, 574 deaths due to influenza everyday.' What is the meaning of ‘only 4 deaths'?"

Jennifer: Meaning ‘it's not too much to cry over. No need to change your soap, you can shake all the hands you want... four deaths is no big deal; swine flu is not a real catastrophe'!

Varmaji laughed. "Yes, at least we have a sense of humour. We can all die laughing. Hmmm…" This is how we are playing the lay offs at work too;   ‘only 15 people are going to lose their jobs', is underplaying the feelings of those who will go, it seems, hmmm… but the environ that has been created because of improper communication has led morale to go down!

The inside of CEO Bali's office was beginning to look like Madame Tussauds. His six-seven vice-presidents were leaning on different pieces of furniture in the large room. Said Bali, gravely, "This quarter's figures are bleak. I think we have no choice but to scale back." Then, clicking the projector on he said, "This is the level of costs we can afford assuming topline grows at 4 per cent. But our actual costs are way higher…!" Suggestions for cuts were tossed around. They were distracted by dialogues on who could go and who must stay… Bali said, "Let us look at what are the unviable divisions that we have, which we can do away with."

One of them was trimming Maharashtra to Zones 1 and 2 as against the four zones it had earlier. That meant two of the four zonal managers would have to go. Debates raged over whether the chaps in the bigger zone should be kept and the smaller ones sacked or the guys with better potential.

Later, they converged in Anil Kamat's room, ordered tea and dissected the plan. Voices carried and the heads outside that were bent over work lifted and glances were exchanged. And the buzz in the outer office grew thicker. They had been getting a whiff that Debbil was rationalising dealers; they had also heard from here and there that next year's capital proposal for cars was being cancelled… and now they were hearing anxiety ridden voices in Kamat's room.

Jennifer had come by to hand over some papers and seeing the huddled heads, added her offering to the blazing fire: "Some people very close to the CEO are also slated to go!" Jennifer was not a gossip, but she had just heard this and was so overwhelmed, that just expressing this eased her heart.

A ripple of emotions was generated and by 3 p.m. it was felt all over the office. Vijay Dua, who had been close to the CEO, was seized by panic when his secretary carried this tale to him. What am I to do? At 48, am I employable? I should have seen this coming. After that Kedar Sud swept Facebook with Khoj's launch, the CEO's tune has changed. Madhura is in the 12th, her admission to Oxford is confirmed… should I talk to a placement firm?

Rishikesh Karnik was also close to the CEO; he had strategised the new ERP plan. He recalled the months of late nights and slogging during the implementation. Now very angry at what seemed like betrayal, he had walked into Siv's office. "Siv, I will sue the company if I am sacked. I spent 11 months of my life running all over the place, for this? Last year during the appraisal you told me that in 2009 I would be promoted! I took a housing loan on the strength of this assurance. You cannot do this! I am from a regional engineering college, that is the issue, no? You took me only so that you could show diversity in Debbil!"

Siv was startled. Getting up, he hastened to pull a chair, "Sit Rishi…" But Rishi walked out, very angry.

Hanif Akhtar was the apple of Bali's eyes. He was the star behind the success of the January 2009 ‘Predict the President' event, which worked wonders for Debbil's new voice recording machine ‘Awoiz'.

Hanif was sad. "Siv, this lay off business… See, my father is unwell. I always wanted to serve him well; he looked after me as a single parent all his life. And today, when it is my turn to look after him… Please can you somehow, somehow keep me back? He will be so shocked if he hears I am being laid off!

"Just three weeks ago, abbu had a party for our family and friends to tell them how well I am doing… He is at the age where it will hurt a lot just thinking ‘what will all those people now say?' Please try… I am like a father to him today… Keeping him happy and cheerful is what matters most to me. I know these things have no reality in the world, but this is my father's reality, no? Please, keep me till I find another job..."



Siv was alarmed. What did these guys know that he did not? As far as he knew, the CEO had not approved any list. They had only talked! Had the business heads been talking? But that would be patently wrong!

That was when Siv, exhausted by the unexpected display of chaos, had left the office. But not before his assistant Ronnie Vaz told him what he had heard in the men's room: "Sunny Rai, a PR manager was telling Jairam Ganesh, ‘PR will be axed first, correct? Main to jaa raha hoon! I will take all my accumulated leave and go on a much-awaited deep sea diving expedition to Kev's Ledge in Mozambique. Life is for living and happiness!' Jairam, who too was there, said, ‘Don't be foolish, save the money, who knows when you will get another job?' Sunny laughed and said, ‘Money will come! Kyon, golden handshake hai na? Bas…!'"

But Jairam himself was anxious. To a dazed Ronnie he had said, "My luck is bad. All the bad luck in the world seems to happen to me only. The world is cruel, Ronnie… nobody cares for anyone. Do they even stop to think what people will do without a job? Very materialistic! The big bosses don't have time to step out of their ivory towers!"

Varmaji too heard all these stories. People brought it to him in the hope that he would take it to the CEO and thereby touch his heart. Picking up a contract which needed Bali's signature, he went into the CEO's room where the managing committee was assembled. As he opened the pages for Bali to sign, Siv gesticulated to which Bali said, "Yes, I have spoken to Varmaji last week. He knows."

Bali had told Varmaji his services were being terminated. It was to this that Jennifer was refering to.

Siv: Sorry Varmaji; I know how badly you need this job… but I really want you to understand that we are really without an option. Our choices are whittling. Forgive me please.

Varmaji was a 54-year-old, single parent to three children aged 23, 16 and 12. He had lost his wife to hospital negligence when the youngest was born. Today, after 31 years of service, he was witnessing the slow breakdown of Debbil Sound Products. He now said to Siv, "Of course of course, Ranjan Sir explained it all to me. Please don't feel bad. This is part of life, so I will survive."

Siv: Varmaji, you walk around the office a lot. What is the mood out there like?

Varmaji: I think this time we panicked. We could have handled the matter differently. I think you have to communicate in such a way that even if people have to leave, they should go peacefully. But, right now, there is reaction out there. They are all young, you see. But you are wiser." He stopped here, fearing he had crossed his boundaries.

 Bali urged him to go on. Continuing in a lower tone, Varmaji said, "See, you too must have gone through crises and learnt that it is not the end of the world or your life. If at all, it made you stronger and smarter. Those days were different, survival was the way of life, we didn't have all these salaries and supermarkets and what not. Today, these young people get nervous because their whole lives are sitting on a series of EMIs. They do not want to go back to their parents and say, ‘Aata kaay karoo?' They need to know that there is life after a lay-off... Don't let them go with confused memories and thoughts, that is all."

A heavy silence followed. Varmaji spoke again: "Siv Sir, may I make a request? I have no family wealth to fall back on, I have just enrolled my oldest son in design school and taken a huge loan. Can't I just work at half the salary for sometime, until I find another job? Sir, I have been doing some thinking. Suppose you keep me on a retainer for 10 months at least. That way you don't have to pay me PF, LTA, etc.

"In these 12 months, I would like to work in the business side and Jennifer can work on personal… Is this OK? This will make my CV look better. Besides, Jennifer too needs to know how the personal side works, as she will be handling both portfolios, no?"

When Varmaji left, Siv said, "He is so right about communication! I don't know how this cascade of rumours took over. But really, we must even now send out a sensible communication, to reduce the impact. The communication must validate the loss. For example, business heads must say ‘we have been thinking for a long time about this, it has been a hard decision to make, etc."

Gopi: I agree. ‘Change is sudden, change is painful, change is choiceless, times are bad…' — we are repeating ourselves… as business heads we need to talk about the reason for change. We need to endorse the employees' sense of loss, recognise their pain.

CFO: A lot of indirect informal communication has already gone out. Now what can you do trying and doctoring words? Instead of communicating this to the person who is going to be hit, you have made this known to others who may not be directly impacted. That has led to rumour mongering and trauma!

Suryaveer Pant, behavioural strategist: I wish we had foreseen that this informal communication was going to add to the sense of impending doom. This one indiscretion in admin is going to have the entire middle management fretting! Yet, I have heard 5-6 different reactions to the same news! How strange man is! One chap was very angry and said he would sue the company! Another was very sad and bargained for time. Yet, I have also heard about a third fellow who is planning a nice holiday.

And here is Varmaji who bargained so well! We are so different as people.
Siv: I too was wondering this morning. I was of a similar view that some people are different and have a way with dealing with crises. The reactions are different not because we are different, but because of the way we interact with the information that comes to us and when it comes to us and, most importantly, from whom it comes to us. After all, as an organisation can we sift people according to types? People are not of four or six kinds. But, in fact, there are as many kinds as there are people. The important thing is processes. That is why organisation processes are deemed good when they can unify more people successfully.

Bali: Yet see Varmaji. No doubt I communicated to him directly. And that may have helped, because of close proximity. But it also brought about a better attitude to facing the crisis and change. I think that made it possible for Varma to think calmly and not as a victim, and even find amazing solutions! Yet I wonder how the whisper campaign began, we did not initiate it… can we try to save the situation even now?

Classroom/syndicate discussion
Do acts of management determine the environment that plays out in a company? 

casestudymeera at gmail dot com