Around a year ago, I had the immense displeasure of travelling with the national airline of a country I will, in deference to potential legal hassles, only refer to as “incredible”. (Clue: This nation issues my passport.) The ticket was booked in one of those analytical moments where brain ruled over heart and instinct. I just clicked on the cheapest travel option available, quickly calculated how many pints of pub-fresh extra cold Guinness draught I could buy with the savings, and fed in credit card details. All with happy visions of flecks of foam on my upper lip.
Friends and family made international phone calls to figure out why I had not opted for Jet Airways or any of the other “proper” airlines. I vehemently pointed at savings and the famously good in-flight catering. This trade-off, I told them, was good. Surely things can’t be that bad. Surely they are giving the airline the usual Indian treatment of over-criticizing our own that we dole out to Dhoni, Sania Mirza and the Bandra-Worli Sea Link.
I will get into subsequent events later. But first let me explain how I was reminded of this incident earlier this week. When news emerged that this very same airline was in dire financial straits. The management has asked the government of India for a bailout to the tune of Rs15,000 crore. (Which, translated to this column’s official unit of currency, is approximately 54.1 crore pints of Guinness.)
The beleaguered airline had earlier tried to defer paying salaries but this blew the wind from below their employees’ wings. The employees have threatened to stop working entirely.
But what really piqued my attention was a statement from a union representative who said that all workers were shocked. They want the government to “find out how the airline reached this dire situation”.
Now if you’ve frequently travelled by this airline you’re probably screaming the answer to that question right now in your cubicle. That too in violation of office moral norms and in language fit only for stump microphones.
What that union member is essentially saying is this: “The management is entirely responsible for screwing things up. I have no idea what happened. Now will you please buckle up and stop complaining? Or should I bludgeon you to death with one of our in-flight cheese sandwiches? Like I did that old man who asked for extra blanket? No? Excellent. Enjoy your flight.” (Repeat in Hindi.)
While this column will always stand up for the little defenceless man/woman in his/her cubicle, today we must discuss this tendency of employees to blame misfortune on their top management.
This tendency is particularly prevalent in weak economic times. Many firms such as above-mentioned airline and, say, American auto makers, have no option but to clean up their act. Which often entails telling their employees to cut back on coffee breaks and use a private space to change into their uniforms. (Will be explained shortly.)
A dear friend and human resources consultant, GG, explained the phenomenon in interesting terms: “Well the simple answer is an old psychological theory: called theory of attribution. People attribute good results to themselves and bad results to external factors. Top management will therefore get blamed for everything that goes wrong—because we also like attributing blame on people rather than abstract concepts like privatization, global recession.”
And what should companies do? “One thing is to stop building up ‘great CEOs’ as brands. That makes the backlash stronger,” opined the wise GG.
So what do you do when the airline that is your company, hits a patch of bad weather that is the economic slump, and is forced to emergency land at the airport that is corporate restructuring? Do you join in the healing process? Or merely blame the management for all ills, quickly cash all expense vouchers and sell the company stock you bought in dad-in-law’s name? Send us email please.
As for my adventures with the airline: both legs of my return flight were a complete disaster. The food was terrible, the service was piss poor, and there was an electric malfunction in the cabin that shut down lights, TV screens and audio. So all of us sat in the dark for 9 hours trying very hard to not look at a honeymooning couple who decided to start early.
But the highlight was when, well past midnight, I went down to the bank of toilets one flight of stairs down in the fuselage. I turned round the corner and there, standing in the middle of the brightly lit waiting area outside the toilet doors, was a member of the airline crew. He was standing with his pants around his knees, changing into a fresh shirt. Carefully tucking in shirt tails fore and aft if you know what I mean.
Surely that was not, I thought at the time, airline management policy.
Cubiclenama takes a fortnightly look at the pleasures and perils of corporate life. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org