It took place a few weeks ago on the large “party lawns” of a respectable club in south Delhi—the annual get-together of the local chapter of my alma mater’s alumni association.
There were the retired civil service types who saved time and effort by arriving pre-drunk. And then there were the children who hadn’t even graduated yet, but came along for the “networking” and “image building”.
In one corner was the dot-com millionaire. Everyone wanted to talk to him. And he obliged politely. Every few minutes someone, usually an approximate batchmate, put an arm around him and led him away saying: “Boss, I have this brilliant idea. With a little bit of seed capital…”
Then there was the branding guru, the buff investment banker, the noble-minded, good-hearted yet Gucci- wearing NGO type, and the young, handsome journalist.
If attended in moderation, these alumni meets are a good way to gauge how people moved up, down and sideways in their professional lives. The most popular conversation starters were: “What do you do nowadays?”, “Who do you work for?”, “Didn’t you top our batch? Are you still with Lehman? Oh, how sad”.
Which is when I began to notice how so many people were extremely conscious of their employer’s identity. So much of who they think they are, it seemed, was an outcome of who they worked for.
In many cases, the individual in question has five or six years of work experience, is a Senior something or the other, has a family with children, and a flat in Greater Noida Extension Annex. (“Just 12km from Agra railway station.”)
Overall, not a bad list of achievements for someone who is just 30 or 32 years old. And once, when asked in a job interview where he saw himself in five years, said, “Bandra??”
Yet, just ask him who he works for and suddenly he looks deflated. His eyes twitch and he tries to avoid the question. “Oh, hmm, eh, a small private equity fund, small firm, really quite new, big risk, look Ginger Chicken on a toothpick!”
In contrast, there are the fellows who know that just saying Unilever, McKinsey or Mint is enough. No further elaboration is necessary. The brand power of your employer’s name, it appears, anoints you in its glory.
Now there are cases in which I can understand this hesitation to reveal employer name. Perhaps you work for a company that has one of those really corny names. Such as “Reilly, Knotty, Thoughts and Co.” or “TrainChildrenToEvadeTaxes.com”.
Or perhaps you work for a company that has recently been involved in some form of crisis. “Hi. Currently I take care of Environmental Protection Engineering. For a British company. A petroleum company. A British petroleum company. Stop talking to me.”
How conscious are you of your employer’s name? Is it a critical part of your self-identity? Would you make career choices based on this? Would you have, hypothetically speaking, joined a start-up called Google, Amazon or Apple?
Or, rather, would you have evaded risk and joined respectable-sounding names that you can brandish with pride?
While the alumni party highlighted the social import of employers prominently, I will recount here an old story that maybe makes this point better.
In engineering college in 2001, there was no bigger name than Cisco Systems when it came to campus placements. Everyone wanted the job, the glamour and the great salary package. During their presentation, a Cisco hand summoned up a PowerPoint slide that predicted what stock options issued to new hires would be worth in five or 10 years.
There were many, many zeros. A hush fell over the hall. Which was finally broken by the noise of a civil engineer, not eligible to apply for Cisco, sobbing into his hanky.
Later that night, after recruitment procedures, a new Cisco hire ran to the institute telephone booth. A bunch of us waited outside to hear him call home. “Papa! I got a job in Cisco!”
We could hear the whoops of joy, and the sound of yellow cellophane paper being ripped off boxes of burfi.
“Thank you Papa. Please arrange a trip to Tirupathi. I join in Bangalore in July.”
Papa was confused. He said that Tisco did not have a plant in Bangalore. Only in Jamshedpur.
Son clarified. Cisco not Tisco.
The whooping stopped. Burfi pieces were recalled.
“Son,” his dad said, “please call back when you get a job in a proper company like Tisco. How will I tell people you work for some Khisko in Bangalore?”
The boy had to be revived all night with Old Monk and cola.
Who do you work for? Are you cringing at the thought of admitting that? Send discreet email confessions.
Cubiclenama takes a weekly look at the pleasures and perils of corporate life. Your comments are welcome at email@example.com
To read Sidin Vadukut’s previous articles, go to www.livemint.com/cubiclenama