A few days ago, I had tea with one of the more elderly members of my family. The gentleman, I can say with complete honesty, was a total colossus in his youth. He was what they call nowadays a “dude” or even a “stud”.
When he was just a teenager, he sneaked on to a train, and landed up in Mumbai. There, somewhat ironically, he joined the Railways as some sort of warehouse sweeper. (If you are American. I am referring to something like a job in the “mailroom”, which is where a suspiciously large proportion of your CEOs come from.)
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“And then I worked loyally till independence. At which point they replaced the Englishman who was my boss with a *pfffft* local!” he said, while sipping his sugar-free afternoon tea absentmindedly from his TV remote control.
He returned to Kerala, presumably with a legit train ticket, and then became a block development officer, a functionary within the local government system. Which is what he retired as.
So basically all his life he has only ever worked for two organizations: the railways and a state government. And he is immensely proud of this. (So am I. But only in the way we all admire other people who work for NGOs, or go to Everest base camp. Wholeheartedly, and from a distance.)
That afternoon, while chatting over tea and mutton cutlets, this column came up. He frowned, sending his skin into a musical chairs of wrinkles, and said: “You tell your readers all kinds of ways to benefit from their companies. Sometimes you tell them to lie or, at least, stretch the truth. This is most shameful. They feed you and clothe you and keep your family happy. How can you lie to your employer? How can you tell other people to do this?”
And then he refused to give me anymore cutlets.
It is a topic I often think about. And one that frequently becomes a topic of discussion with my other cubicle-going friends:
How honest should you be to your company? Should you always be honest by default? Or base your honesty on how the company treats you?
The answers I get from people vary widely depending on many factors. Do they work for public or private sector companies? Have they ever been the victim of some blatant institutional lie? Did they go through a campus recruitment process?
But most of all, how old are they?
My father, for instance, can’t even imagine lying to his employers. He and most of his colleagues are the sort of people who keep track of how many Post-it notes they use. (I, on the other hand, routinely take printouts of personal things on the office printer without batting an eyelid. Yesterday I printed out Wikipedia. Full colour with images.)
Many younger people, on the other hand, are intensely sceptical about their companies. And this translates into the most flimsy, cursory relationship between employer and employee. Just last month, I had a chat with a fellow who told me, with not a twinge of guilt in his voice, that he was switching jobs without telling his previous employer.
But why not?
“Then I have to serve my notice period no?”
“So? Serve it no? Haven’t you signed a contract?”
“I signed something when I joined. But it’s not like they’ll track me down or anything. I just packed up my things and left. Notice period is for losers.”
A shiver ran down my spine. This boy would be on the covers of magazines one day. Clearly, he believes that the contract he signed is worth nothing. And, even more sadly, that his absence in the office will hardly cause alarm.
But, of course, it is not all about age, is it? Read any of the many great books on the Lehman-Bear Stearns-Human Civilization collapse. You’ll see plenty of established companies and grey-haired employees lying to each other like NRIs on a matrimonial website.
So, really, what determines the nature of your relationship with your employer? Is it a purely transactional one? You pay me this much, I do this much, we are both reasonably happy.
Or is it a more intimate one? One based on honour, transparency and trust.
Last week I saw The Social Network, the Mark Zuckerburg biopic, and there is a moment in the movie when one of the co-founders of Facebook realizes he has been massively screwed over by the company. It is a powerful and moving scene. But one that also reflects how fragile perhaps the company-worker relationship has become. Even at the highest, most intimate levels.
Do you trust your company? Or is your relationship limited to that figure that gets deposited in your salary account every month?
Plenty of questions this week. But not enough answers. Kindly send some via email. Best respondents get first-class mutton cutlets.
I am being entirely honest here. So what I really mean is that winners get high-resolution pictures of mutton cutlets.
Cubiclenama takes a weekly look at the pleasures and perils of corporate life. Your comments are welcome at email@example.com