Many years ago I had the opportunity to work with a dot-com start-up. We had a reasonably hep office in a Chennai suburb, no dress code, workstations with large-screen monitors, a central computer server dedicated to streaming the latest movies and music and an HR department-compiled employee’s handbook that actually had lame jokes in the footnotes and appendices. (Example: “All employees who get married while in our services will be paid a Rs3,500 gift bonus. Just don’t overdo it people!” The HR types would then point them out and you had to laugh politely.)
Unfortunately, we started operations approximately 15 minutes after the dot-com industry crashed and burnt. The first few months were fine. We sat around analysing, scaling up, diversifying, mining data and delivering eyeballs. We had frequent brainstorming sessions with whiteboards, markers and Saravana Bhavan filter coffee and assumed that some form of revenue was trickling into the accounts department on the ground floor.
Apparently not. We were losing money on everything, including the coffee.
One day, rumours began to spread that the company was going to change its strategy to help improve our financials. Instead of being a B2B Procurement Marketplace (or something like that) we would now become a software development company to cater to the Japanese market. When a few Japanese men in suits were spotted in the CEO’s office a few days later, morale hit an all-time low. Employees began to prepare for the worst and everyone lined up to take back-ups of the movie and music server on their personal hard drives.
And then it happened: Our CEO summoned a “townhall meeting” to soothe nerves.
Ring a bell?
Anyone who’s been keeping tabs on the global economy will be mighty familiar with this term, this portent of doom, the townhall meeting. Check the annals of any firm that has recently gone under, or clings to hope of a bailout by their fingernails. Chances are you will find references to a “townhall meeting” in there, along with the ill-humoured conference call with hawkish analysts and the letter to the stock exchange, cc-ed to investors, assuring them that all is shipshape and this 86% dip in stock price is a total conspiracy.
So, what is a townhall meeting?
I asked an expert, a friend of mine who works in the human resources department for a very large Indian company. She will make frequent appearances in this column, feeding us titbits from the world of HR, and will go by the cover of Mata HaRi.
“Think of it as a village panchayat, Sidin,” HaRi told me. “The top management summons all the employees into a suitably large room and then proceeds to make statements, clarify doubts and take questions.”
Surely this is a splendid means to communicate with employees, I opined. “Of course not. It is complete eyewash, my man,” HaRi countered. “The idea is to give the impression it is a democracy. That everyone’s opinions and questions matter. But in reality they are playing for time.”
Time to shore up finances? Time to arrange for liquidity?
“No. Time for the leadership committee to offload their stock options while the stock is still listed.”
Oh dear. But the questions?
“We plant all of them. Irrelevant questions with long answers like... ‘Can you briefly explain our risk management policies, sir?’ or ‘Does this change our mission and vision as a company?’ This way we can avoid difficult ones like ‘But sir I believe you’re interviewing with a hedge fund?’ Sidin, see, the townhall is a clear example of one of my rules...”
Mata HaRi’s 1st rule of employee communication: The truthiness of an employee meeting is inversely proportional to the number of attendees at the meeting.
(We can expect more such golden rules and insights into the world of human resources as this column and its association with Mata HaRi develops.)
So what advice does HaRi have for readers summoned for such townhalls? “File all your expenses immediately. Leave the company laptop at home. And sign up on employment sites such as Monster.com.”
And what happened to my townhall meeting in Chennai? you ask.
Our CEO was a real nice chap who danced at office parties. He assured a roomful of sceptics that all was fine. That he had complete faith in our ability to make serious revenue. Bonuses would be paid and no retrenchment. “I am with you all the way!” he said.
We left pumped up like the Scots in Braveheart after Mel Gibson’s little talk. The very next day we got an email from HR saying that our CEO would be leaving us with immediate effect. Further developments would be discussed at a forthcoming townhall meeting.
Cubiclenama will take a fortnightly look at the pleasures and perils of corporate life. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.