Even if mass layoffs are needed, it's a HR manager's role to make CXOs see the human beings behind the numbers.

Tech Mahindra audio leak Brutality of IT slowdown needs top bosses to be sensitive
Voices Opinion Saturday, July 08, 2017 - 15:37

Layoffs are always messy. Just as the recorded phone call of a Tech Mahindra HR manager haranguing an employee to pack his bag and leave overnight went viral online, I also happened to hear about the firing of a social worker at an NGO. There was some crying and pleading, a lot of blaming and shouting, and lingering bitterness, in spite of the NGO having given the employee a notice period and support to look for another job.

Whatever the reason may be for a person to get fired, it hurts their self-esteem deeply. It is beyond just the trauma of having to figure out a source of income to pay the rent next month; it feels like the rejection of one’s capabilities.

The Tech Mahindra firing, however, has a larger context. The responsibility for the slowdown in the IT sector, and consequent layoffs of employees, falls squarely on the shoulders of ‘industry captains’ and CXOs sitting pretty on their multi-million-dollar bonuses and refusing to see the future. Innovation and keeping the Indian IT sector afloat were their responsibilities, and they failed. The price is being paid by small-time coders who have always been treated like sheep.

Over and above that, a culture of insensitivity has been perpetuated by CXOs and top bosses in their organizations. HR managers who pick up the call to convey the bad news are employees themselves, and are given clear instructions on the tone and content of the delivery.

Following the public criticism the company suffered after the audio clip went viral, a brand-conscious management put out a statement “deeply regretting” the “manner” in which the conversation took place. The “manner” was indeed problematic, and we will get to that in a bit. Let’s talk about the policy first.

A cursory hearing of the audio makes it clear that the employee being fired was more aghast over how he was being fired, and not the ‘Cost Optimization’, as the HR puts it. He repeatedly asks the HR manager how he can be asked to pack up and leave overnight. “At least give me a week madam,” he pleads, only to be curtly told, “We cannot give you so much time.” He asks for humanity. He is instead given rude corporate jargon based on an inhuman hiring policy.

Culture of insensitivity

The truth is, there is no “fairness” and “human dignity” in asking an employee to pack up and go home immediately for ‘Cost Optimization’, especially when the CEO earned more than Rs. 150 crore in the past year. “Gurnani’s total compensation for the year ended 31 March 2017 trumped the pay packet of the entire boards of TCS, Infosys and Wipro, India’s top three IT services firms,” reports VCCircle. If CP Gurnani and Anand Mahindra were really human and not image-conscious bosses trying to save face, they would offer their employees at least a one-month notice period or a half-decent compensation package.

To have screwed up in your job, yet earn a bucket load of money, and then ask foot-soldiers to suffer is sheer greed, and nothing more. It is true employees can behave irrationally when fired – and firings need to happen sometimes – but the responsibility needs to be shouldered accordingly.

This is a part of a larger corporate culture in which CXO’s are so self-obsessed with their growth, their own ‘passion to succeed’ and <insert other inspirational platitudes here>, that they forget they have human beings working for them.

It was evident when former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick was caught on the dashcam of a taxi valiantly defending himself, stating how he would have lost to competitors if he did not do what he had to.  Well, lose then. Sacrificing your employees, or in Uber’s case driver-partners, to stay afloat is not winning, it is cheating.

It was also evident when former Flipkart CEO claimed that he too had to “pay the price” for “performance”, as though being kicked upstairs to the Executive Chairman’s position from being the CEO of the company is the same as being laid off and left in the lurch.

Being a better HR manager

No amount of responsibility with the top management however excuses HR managers from being sensitive while handing over pink slips. True, HR managers are employees too and they are under immense pressure from having to do this incredibly thankless job, but the tone of the conversation is a personal decision to make. You cannot shout, scream and intimidate a person into quitting, and you don’t have to be nasty.  

HR managers are an important part of the workforce in any company, and the call for reforms must come from within. HR chiefs have to impress on their number-crunching CXOs that there are people behind profit and loss statements and growth charts, and they have to be dealt with sensitively. There is an inherent brutality in mass layoffs, and it shouldn’t be made even more so by cold-hearted HR managers.