Things that go bump in the night. Little shifts in the woodwork, little creaks as they adjust. Listen out for the little noises, the tiny creaks when all is silent, and you will know much. Two little things went bump this week – and if you care for people in corporations – you will want to listen carefully now.
One was the Flipkart story about deferring the joining dates of new employees, and the other was a law passed in France that gives workers the ‘right to disconnect’ digitally after work hours. All of this in the background of the brouhaha about Raghuram Rajan’s second term in office. The common thread here? People, professionals, and respect. (I already have 3 out of four boxes for a 2X2 model, someone give me a gentle pejorative for overwork, that can be the fourth box).
So here is what happened- Flipkart decided to defer the joining date of it’s recruits this year by six months. They did this to manage costs and solely in their own business interests. It is their job to look after their business interests, and that includes their budgets, their reputation, their relationships and their contracts. Very simply, you cannot renege or renegotiate your contracts without some negative fallout on your reputation and risk rating. As employers, Flipkart’s risk rating takes a hit. But what did they do that others have not done before? IT companies have been deferring the joining dates of young (software) engineers for years. Without pushback. It is one thing to bully young insecure first time job seekers, and quite another thing to offer the same to secure institutions where the recruits are able to hold their own. It is only the strong who can fight for their own position, and in doing so, they stand for the weak too. IIM(A) has led the charge in seeking compensation, the IITs are taking away the first recruiter advantage, and the firm has suffered reputational damage as an employer. It will have to take it on the chin as a cost incurred in saving costs, negotiate with the collective of recruits, as they would in renegotiating outstanding debt. As I write this, they are responding to the pushback of the professionals.
The specifics of the case are only illustrative of the ways in which corporate India often (not all, of course) tends to be less than respectful of the individuals it wants to work with – indeed the same people who will build their business. ‘Lala’ companies were held in disfavour as employers for this very reason – no self respecting professional would want to work where one would be treated with less respect. The old entrepreneurs who built these large software giants steered dangerously close to ‘lala’ territory when they treated their people as commoditised resources – value maximising and replaceable. Let us not even speak of the ‘bench’, the joining date uncertainties and the ‘bonds’ that stressed these nascent professionals. The new ‘start-ups’ need to steer clear of these. Just because it happened before is no reason for it to be perpetuated.
On the other hand comes the legislation from France, where respect for the individual’s personal time has been codified into law to protect them from stress. I cannot imagine this happening in India. Simply different cultures – observing a difference does not make one right and the other wrong. Across Europe, colleagues would call each other after work hours only if pre-agreed or in a work emergency. Most work would be limited to official working hours – though this more so at the operational levels than the strategic levels. In any case, there has to be a good reason to expect somebody to respond after work hours, and certainly a very good reason to be present on a phone call or in office when it is dinner time for the family at home. This is what the legislation reflects – a recognition of the need to have a healthy personal life and to have a clear demarcation between personal and professional lives.
India, in contrast, rarely draws the line. Often, clients are ‘friends’ as are colleagues – not because a friendship evolved but because it is easier to deal with people by blurring the lines between personal and professional. This reflects in working hours too – a client call in the middle of a family dinner is expected to be answered, as is a call on a weekend. The boss’s call is never refused – the hierarchy would crumble in the face of such defiance-who cares about boundaries here. Having started off as the call centre of the world, it is difficult to shift the notion that calls from international colleagues should be at hours that suit all. Whether the French legislation goes overboard or the Indian expectations are unrealistic (and indeed unhealthy) is up for discussion. What is clear is that the issue of respect for the employee’s personal life and interests often moot here, and that is very sad indeed.
Raghuram Rajan’s next term as Governor RBI may or may not happen. But the debate surrounding it is very interesting (if generated by those who really have little to do with the actual decision). This is about a professional and and academic who steers a steady ship through – he has done a good job. He has spoken truth to power and been misunderstood as often as he has been cheered on. A professional who clearly has enough options globally not to need the job, not a supplicant. Not surprisingly, he too is an alumnus from the very IITs and IIMs that are standing up for their students’s time and money. Professionalism demands respect for the value it provides, it does not stand as a supplicant. It has options, and it will not be treated callously without a cost, or without compensation. A business imperative is not valuable for a corporation than for an individual. Individuals, as professionals are a business too – and will count their costs and opportunities just the same. And will stand up for themselves precisely because they can, because they have other options and because there is no reason for them to take bad behaviour or be bullied. All opportunities have costs, and this works both ways.
If you listen carefully in the gentle aftermath of these debates, you will hear the house(s) creak – for the ground underneath just shifted ever so gently. For good.