A couple of months ago I went to meet the chief executive of a business process outsourcing company for an interview. The company is based in Noida and, as some of you might know, that is not exactly the most well-planned suburb. Almost nothing in all of Noida—building, road, tree or automobile—is at right angles to anything else. While there is some master plan in the way the various sectors are numbered, said plan is a state secret.
All set to athletically leap from the autorickshaw into an air-conditioned lobby, I was intercepted by a guard. He then spent 20 minutes meticulously removing every single piece of electronic item from my person. When I asked him why he was confiscating even my harmless audio recorder, he pointed to a huge notice on the wall.
In order to prevent data theft and maintain confidentiality, the notice explained, employees, contractors and guests were prohibited from carrying into the office a long list of items. To put it briefly, the quickest way to enter this office was to come draped in a thin bath towel, wearing flip-flops, and nothing else. Cameras and mobile phones with cameras were banned. CDs and DVDs were severely frowned upon. And a concealed USB pen drive would result in snipers on the roof taking you down. Fatally.
It took a number of phone calls and the right words of persuasion—“remarkably high tendency to severely misquote from memory”—before extensive paperwork was processed and just the audio recorder was let in.
Later, after the interview, I asked one of the CEO’s minders if the company was equally adept at maintaining confidentiality within the office. Was it possible to keep secrets within one department, isolated from another?
“Of course not. Impossible. You can’t keep secrets within an office. Utterly powerless to prevent internal leaks,” the lady from corporate communications told me candidly as she walked me down the stairs. “But don’t quote me on that please,” she added. I promised that her quote would never be used in an article or column, ever.
I was reminded of this exchange recently when a friend announced she was changing jobs. We were all very happy for her on the outside and, blame human frailty, intensely jealous on the inside. Oddly enough, she simply refused to share the identity of her new employer. Not even with her dearest friends. And most definitely not with the people in her office. “I trust no one in office,” she explained. “You tell one fellow in complete confidence, and then soon the entire company will know. And then some jealous idiot will sabotage my job by sending an anonymous email to my new boss with details of how I made that small computing error last year and formatted the ERP server by mistake. No need. Only I know how rare a new job is in this economy.”
Offices are notoriously leaky when it comes to secrets. Surely at some point in your career you’ve been informed of a promotion in utmost secrecy by your boss. Only to return to your desk and find 10 “congratulations!” emails and 48 “where is our treat?” emails.
That’s because most offices are very good social networks. Thanks to the complex web of friendships, romances, jealousies and rivalries that exists in all offices, except Mint where three of those four things are disallowed, any gossip is transmitted through this web at tremendous speed. This network is very understanding, transmitting both fact and fiction with equal alacrity.
While this is good fun for the employees and makes organizing birthday parties a blast, it can pose several problems for management.
For instance, purely as a thought experiment, let us assume you run a cricket team that is doing really quite badly. Not to mention the gold T-shirts. You try all sorts of strategies to improve the performance. But undermining you at every stage, hypothetically, is someone who posts every inside team secret on a blog. Even given that this is a pure thought experiment, the idea is enough to make you stutter in disgust.
So how does management cope with leaky offices? I decided to ask an old hand, in that ultimate political office environment: the public sector undertaking.
PB told me how he once had to promote just one of four underlings, all of whom were competing for the same post. “It’s one of the toughest secrets to hide. Promotions are informed via official letters, and as soon as you dictate it the entire typing pool will know. And soon I’d be getting calls from union people recommending someone else. So I devised a simple solution.”
PB told his secretaries to prepare complete paperwork for all four candidates. All the letters were identical except for name and were delivered to his office where he signed all of them in front of a peon and kept them ready for delivery. He then called all of them into this cabin and broke the news collectively. He handed one letter to the chosen officer and ran the rest through a shredder.
Cubiclenama takes a fortnightly look at the pleasures and perils of corporate life. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org