Saturday, January 29, 2011

Corporate Family Value System

My day had got off to a start that I can best describe as ridiculous. Switching on my computer at office, I was greeted by a mail from a manager from India. Apparently a female member of our offshore team was scheduled to have celebrated her daughter’s first birthday with the usual amount of fun filled festivities. She had made all the preparations and had sent out invitations to friends and family. And suddenly a ‘very important’ client audit had come up and this unfortunate lady had volunteered to cancel the ceremony and stay on in office. Daughter’s first birthday was cancelled because of pressing demands at workplace. And the manager’s mail was a flowery, glittering appreciation of her efforts and sacrifice of personal life.

My senses were not affronted just by the mail – which according to me missed the boundaries of professional etiquette by a good many miles. I was also perplexed by the variety of reactions from my Indian colleagues. While some of the more diplomatic clicked their tongues and made a show of sympathy for the poor girl who had to forego such an important landmark of her daughter’s life, there were others who were downright spiteful.  Showcasing commitment by highlighting such domestic sacrifice was not exactly to their liking. As one of the more caustic remarked, “The next mail will be appreciating someone who lent his wife to a horny client for the sake of business relationship.”

Well, I am quite accustomed to the way the normal Indian office goer reacts when appreciation is showered on their peers. Much of it has to do with there being hardly any other identity in a life that revolves around cubicle space. And, in case this remark is interpreted as culturally insensitive, let me add that I am also aware that back in India there is a lot of competition for daily livelihood and the social situation largely regulates the importance individuals attach to their jobs. At first meetings, I rarely get to know of someone’s hobby, preferences in music or books, but almost always am informed of his or her sphere of professional competence, and sometimes the different financial investments they subscribe to. But, even if I accepted the reactions, the mail itself dragged me quite some distance off my orbit. A couple of Dutch clients seating near us who had been copied on the communication winked amongst themselves and muttered something under their breath which can be loosely translated into English by the phrase – ‘Get a life’.

A daughter will have her first birthday just once, and I can hardly think of any of the clerical work that we generally carry out to come close to the importance of that auspicious event. In any case, comparing the two is more than the clichéd apples and oranges – it is more like moon and sixpence. And if anyone exerts her personal choice and prefers the few hours of professional nothingness to the cherished moments of family life, I do not see any reason to glorify it and splash it across unsuspecting mailboxes of almost everyone but the Prime Minister. A responsible management, according to me, has to be aware that any glorification of efforts is a benchmark that the company sets for all the employees. And if neglecting family interests become one of the preferred paths to walk on, it is vulnerable to a lot of risks. One is creating a severely damaging image of the company in the market. Another is pissing people off, which I noticed immediately at first hand. The long term effect is pissing off the families, when zealous employees embark on a cutthroat competition to neglect them. And finally, a lot of employees will be eager to manufacture fictitious birthdays, anniversaries, deaths, funerals, engagements and weddings that they can gleefully and publicly avoid to fill a spreadsheet or browse on the office internet.

Personally, I would not trust someone who put her job above her daughter’s birthday as far as I can throw a Dutch cow. If she can abandon her baby daughter for something as flimsy as the work we do, she can sell me down the river to upgrade her Windows.

I was actually relieved that I had the regular pub evening with Dr. Suprakash Roy today. A talk with the curious psychiatrist always works wonders for my mood. He was already there in De Pilsvogel, and raised his hand to beckon me as I entered.

“It may be an odd question coming from a psychiatrist, but is there something on your mind?” he asked as I dropped on the plush chair, having ordered my beer. He looked calm and expressionless, as he is always wont to be when people are on the verge of unloading their troubles to his experience ears. However, as he listened, he chuckled.

“Simon, how far has your education progressed in the most essential cultural dimension of modern day India? And by that of course I mean Bollywood.”

I was puzzled and replied that I had seen my share of them. I was not a diehard fan, especially given the loud mindless melodrama and stereotypical cliché associated with many, but thanks to some of the more thoughtful colleagues, I had watched some good ones too. I knew some of the actors ...

“Ah, then you do know someone called Amitabh Bachchan ?”

I said that I did. He was a veteran actor in his sixties with a grey beard.

“Sacrilege, Simon,” he exclaimed with widened eyes. “Nowadays, yes, he is as you describe him. But once upon a time he was young and a genuine superstar. In fact, he is known as the Angry Young Man.”

I remarked that I had not seen Mr. Bachchan in his younger days, even in movies.

He closed his eyes. “I was laughing because I remembered a movie called Shakti. Our Mr. Bachchan was then a young man of about ... well  forty ... but that does not matter. He played the son of a tough, upright police officer who was in turn played by another superstar of yesteryears – Dilip Kumar. It is one of the better Bollywood movies, I would recommend it.”

Happy as I was with this continuing Bollywood education, I failed to see how Amitabh Bachhan or Dilip Kumar fitted into our conversation.

“The mind numbing pathos associated with the Indian workplace has temporarily made you impatient. I understand that. Well, in the movie, Amitabh as a child is kidnapped by a smuggler. The villain calls the honest policeman and tells him that he would kill his son if he did not stop trying to put him behind bars. And Dilip Kumar responds that he can do whatever he likes, but nothing can make him compromise his duty.”

I said that even if this was the accepted folklore dished out by the educational medium of Bollywood, policework and the software industry were not exactly comparable. In my book, missing a daughter’s first birthday for work could not be condoned. And glorifying the crime was almost barbaric.

Dr. Roy smiled. “That’s not the point. In the movie, the little Amitabh overhears the telephonic conversation. And even when he is rescued later on and comes back to his mom and dad, he grows up hating his father, and becomes a walking six feet store of psychological problems, ultimately becoming a smuggler himself ... Well, I was just wondering if something similar can happen to this little girl in question. How will she deal with the negligence of childhood once she comes to know of it?”

He laughed. “Through some weird cognitive map, this particular movie popped up in my mind. However, that is not to trivialise the issue. Depending on when and how she comes to know of this abandonment, there can be various reactions. But, although I am quite good at it, I will refrain from long distance judgement. I understand what offended you more was the mail communication that followed in the wake of the lady’s monumental sacrifice.”

I said that he was right.

“And it makes sense. Let me use the example generally given by Dan Ariely of the Duke University. Let us suppose you are invited to a fabulous feast in one of the homes of your Indian colleagues. You eat your fill of delicious slices of mutton that melts in your mouth, with saffron flavoured Biryani that sticks to the ribs. Followed by those syrupy sweets from Bengal ... imagine all this while sitting in a land where one has to eat bread, bread and more bread ...”

I asked the doctor not to torture me since I had already had a bad day.

“And at the end of it all, you belch – believe me one cannot help belching after such a meal. And then you get up and take out your wallet, peeling off two fifty euro bills as a payment for the excellent dinner ...”

“Are you crazy? That’s an insult ...”

The good doctor smiled. “Why? The hosts did spend a lot of money for this and you can equate it with a hundred euro. So why not pay them for the troubles? I will tell you why. There are two norms that generally run in the society that are parallel to each other. Social and financial. If you mix the two, the result is always a disaster.”

He paused.

“You mean, this manager has done the same mistake ...?”

“If you go on a date with one of those beautiful Dutch girls, many of whom incidentally are unfurling themselves in the pub, and I don’t know how long my analysis will continue before bowing to the dictates of Freud. You have a great dinner, laced with lovely champagne and whispered nothings. And finally as you leave, you indicate that you would not mind a nightcap and more, especially since it has cost you a hundred and twenty euro for the meal and that’s a great deal of money ...”

I said that I would not dream of making that mistake. All the gorgeous Dutch girls have played field hockey at some juncture of their exhilarating youth, and immediate access to a hockey stick as an instrument of inflicting injury could not be ruled out.

Suprakash smiled. “So you see how atrocious it is to mix the social and financial norms. And although the boundary is very slim in an Indian work environment, there are certain unwritten lines that cannot be overstepped. Putting a price on a one year old baby is truly obnoxious. However, companies do try to promote themselves as a big happy family. Especially modern day multinationals. It is an effort to make employees feel at home, while the underlying objective is to ensure that the extra effort needed, the extra hours to be worked, can be elicited without paying huge quantities of additional bonus. It is all one big happy family after all, and no family member would demand extra pay for going the extra mile for brothers, sisters and cousins.”

I said that it made a lot of sense. Every management talk ended with the corporate crap of it being a big, happy family.

“Companies understand the underlying appeal to the social senses of the employee. Or rather there are industry wide organisational studies and theories that set the template. There are paid employees who are in charge of ensuring that the workplace is fun and gives a family feeling. This ensures that it goes beyond a nine to five and pay-check relationship. The factory whistle no longer signals the end of the day. Projects are won or lost based on the extra effort at the same price. And to ensure this, a family feeling is very important. And thanks to some of the strategies, the social norms have been established with employees. I am not referring to the ridiculous mail, but some employees do feel a certain pride in staying beyond their forty hours. But, companies do go wrong in a very elementary way. Tell me Simon, if a member of the family is sick, you will run to the doctor at night, right?”

I replied that I would, provided he was not a cruel but rich uncle and I was his only heir.

“Now, in case you fall sick, what would you expect from the same family member? And this is where the social norms are flagrantly abused by the company. Any social relationship is a reciprocal one. However pause a moment and think of any Indian guy at this foreign location. What happens if he becomes non-billable?”

I nodded. Non-billability at onsite is fatal as far as company policy goes. One is given fifteen days to find a new assignment which earns money for the company, or else is asked to pack his bags and depart for the shores of the homeland.

“I get it,” I said. “It is one-way traffic as far as social norms are concerned. The family member is kicked out the moment he cannot earn. It's worse. With short term goals, draconian cost cutting measures, and this cribbing about mounting costs while coming up with official communications of billion dollar profits – these are really at loggerheads with the happy family concept. No wonder corporate loyalty is as good as an oxymoron. Companies can’t really expect to have it both ways.”

The good doctor looked long and reflectively at one more of the Dutch damsels who had flocked in to this comfortable watering hole.

“You see Simon, the mistake that these organisations make is that they fail to consider the hidden implied costs that social norms bring into the picture. Let me give you a Freudian analogy. Look how suggestively first part of the literary word crops up – maybe because we are discussing the corporate world. Let us say that you want to screw. If you go to De Wallen you can have a fairly good twenty minutes for fifty euro. If you want more, go to one of the more posh places – private houses, Amsterdam Prive, Asmara, Club Bianca or whatever...”

“Doctor, your knowledge of the city amazes me.”

“For still better service, hire escorts. However, if you want something totally free by dating a girl, then it involves costs, maintenance costs – regular dinners and dates, wine and champagne, gifts and flowers. As Woody Allen said, the most expensive sex is free sex.”

I said that it was a marvellous analogy. Woody Allen’s influence was all over the corporate world.

“Hence, the more an organisation roots for a family feeling without budgeting for the costs of standing by the employee during a bad time, the more it is prone to breed pissed workforce who will jump ship at the first opportunity. All these Indian corporate families – can you tell me how many have crèches? Depressingly few. Will the company host a birthday party for the daughter? No, not unless the mother in question is a Vice President ... and by then, well, let’s say an year old daughter is next to a menopausal miracle ...”

I reflected on his words even as he stopped speaking to focus on the growing number of beautiful blondes. The analysis and the beer had by now washed the bitter taste of the mail, and the screechy tracks of the rat race were by now muffled by the music that grew louder. I sat back and relaxed. At least I could forget work after the normal hours.


  1. Excellent projection of the hypocritical corporate family values prevailing predominantly in Corporate India!!

  2. The episode also reminds me of the film Matrix in a way. There humans were harvested on farms as a power source for the machines. To ensure that the humans shall not revolt, their minds were locked in the hyper-reality that the Matrix was.

    The current corporate environment is also something terrifyingly similar. The minds of most employees are locked in the fictitious "global happy family," while the creators of this happy family are the machines who harvest these brains and reap their fruits!


Simon van der Wiel is a fictitious character who appears in the novel The Best Seller by Arunabha Sengupta.

These lines are both collected from the novel and extrapolated from it - additional musings of the author through his alter ego

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Amsterdam, Netherlands