Travel policy and corporate casteism

When the revolution comes, the travel policy must go


Before the global financial crisis of 2008, most companies flew employees business class if the travel time was longer than 4 hours. Photo: iStockphoto
Before the global financial crisis of 2008, most companies flew employees business class if the travel time was longer than 4 hours. Photo: iStockphoto

Talking to my travel desk is like talking to my dentist. It is necessary. They book my tickets, find me accommodation and arrange complicated land transfers. They also say horrid things such as “lowest logical fare” and suggest that I consider flying on airlines that do not respect my FF status. Once, they asked me if I would be willing to share my ride to the hotel with another employee from one of our other offices—a stranger, really. I might as well have called for an UberPool.

The worst of their egregious behaviour is the primness with which they remind you of the 6-hour rule. “No, sir, DEL-SIN is only 5 hour, 45 minutes, only Economy, sir.” Before the GFC of 2008, most travel desks, whether in-house or outsourced, told you any flight longer than 4 hours was eligible for business class. Then, along the years, as “cost consolidation” overtook “accelerating growth” in buzzword rankings, it crept up to 5, five and a half. Now, most companies use 6 hours as the minimum travel time for business-class flights. Some try to act generous by making an exception for red-eye flights, but that’s only because they save on the hotel fare for the preceding night.

Over time, I have learnt it isn’t them—no, it isn’t me either—it is the travel policy. The “Travel Policy” is an invention firmly of our times, like Pokémon GO and GIF chats. Imagine Sir Walter Raleigh, tasked by queen Elizabeth I to go and conquer remote and heathen lands, being then asked by his travel desk to explain why his charter needed flat-bed furniture, or being told that he couldn’t touch the stock of claret in the cabin because it violated the Mini Bar rule. “Would you, kind Sir, please get an approval in writing from Her Majesty herself for an exception, along with an endorsement from your one-up manager?” Or imagine General Zhang Qian, sent by the emperor Han Wudi to settle matters on the western borders, being asked by his travel desk why he needed a posse of 100 men when clearly the policy set out 45 men as the standard retinue for such expeditions.

And yet, we, who have to travel to the far corners of the earth—not for the glory of queen or country but for feckless shareholders—have not only to make peace with stale food (better china in business class maketh not a gourmet meal), recycled air, dry skin, deep vein thrombosis and—not infrequently—flatulent co-passengers, we must also deal with restrictions on fare class, restrictions on ground transport, restrictions on hotels one is allowed to stay in and yet more restrictions on the category of rooms in those hotels that one might stay in. There are exceptions, of course. Above a certain rank, it seems to me, the Policy becomes a Concept. One is allowed not just business class but Suites! If that might be too uncomfortable, here is a private jet Mr CEO.

Long ago I worked for a company—a major Indian conglomerate—where travel benefits were pegged to the band you belonged to. As a management trainee fresh from college, my band—L—was the lowest in the headquarter, but in the field—where my colleagues were local sales folk—I was a man of privilege. In those days—this is about a decade ago—my allowance was Rs1,600 a night for accommodation. This wasn’t bad. In a place like Lucknow or Kanpur, cities I had to visit often, Rs1,600 got me a tidy room at the Comfort Inn, breakfast included. However, my sales colleagues, who belonged to bands that were so low that they were not even assigned letters of the English alphabet, had to find shelter for about Rs250 a night.

If you have ever worked in sales, you know how it works. The men you count on to meet your targets are the most important men in your life—more important than your boss and certainly more important than the chief executive officer. If they like you, they will put in a fight that ends with you getting a bonus of 150 index; if they don’t—well, you should pack your bags and look for a job in IT. Part of this is drinking cheap whisky in tall beer glasses, but it is also about looking and feeling equitable.

So the choice became clear. Just because I had Rs1,600 to squander, I could actually not spend that amount on a room for myself while my “brothers” slept in—where did they sleep? I didn’t know and I meant to find out. It couldn’t be too bad. I liked backpacking. Surely, I could…

So I said to Anurag, one of my star salesmen, I am sick of Comfort Inn. It’s too boring being alone. Where are you staying? I will stay at the same place. He said that would be great boss; with your allowance, we can even get an upgrade.

That is how, lying in the same bed as Anurag, watching a movie on his laptop with a stare so fixed that it almost shut out the powerful image of semen stains on the bed left by the previous guest and the decorative paan-spit motif of the walls, it became clear to me that I could not work for a company that discriminates between employees using the fig leaf of “policy”.

I have since changed a few jobs, seen much better standards and come to secretly enjoy work travel. Given the plight of labour in the world today—and I don’t mean British politician Jeremy Corbyn’s inability to find a seat on a Virgin train—it might seem in poor taste to complain about business travel, but it really is all connected. The question of travel policy lies midway between the debates on executive compensation and minimum wage; it is corporate casteism.

When the revolution comes, the policy must go. Or, at least, give me an exception!

Red Eye is a monthly column on the odds of travelling for business. Abhijit Dutta tweets at @abhijit1507.

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