Recently, I was out having dinner with an entrepreneur friend of mine. It was one of those trendy new restaurants in Mumbai where the furniture and decor are largely procured from rubbish dumps and old public sector offices. But the wine list is all Trebbiano and Montepulciano and Cristal.
And all the main courses have some form of ‘jus’.
No. I know what you’re thinking. He paid for it. And I have no intention of paying him back with any positive coverage of his start-up. At least not in this quarter.
While nibbling on some pizza-like starter he told me an interesting story about work-life balance. Which I think is worth sharing.
My entrepreneur friend has a buddy who works for one of those dubiously small but remarkably well-paying venture capital-investment banking-private equity-arms trading type thingamajigs in Mumbai. For the purposes of this column let us call this aspiring white-collar-criminal buddy Raj.
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Now the problem with Raj’s company—an Indian unit of a US parent—is that it makes its people work like machines. The average working days were 14 hours long, and Raj and his colleagues routinely clocked in seven-day weeks. Indeed, one year, Raj calculated, the average employee got just two Sundays off in the entire year.
Shudder. Just imagine the horror. Just two Sundays off? When do these guys get haircuts or replace used gas cylinders?
For Raj and company, life went on like this, month after month, till, earlier this year, a couple of HR folk from the US parent company popped down to Mumbai for a visit. One night the visiting HR managers decided to take everyone out to dinner. Of course, hardly anyone had the time to leave office, and the Americans ended up going to dinner with an excited gaggle of new hires.
(I can see some of you nodding your heads already. Dinner with new recruits! What could be a worse idea? A new BlackBerry handset perhaps. But besides that?)
During dinner the HR types asked the new hires what they thought of the company’s HR policies. What followed was an explosion of pent-up frustration. The Americans were shocked by the injustice and the blatant violation of employee rights.
The next day they sat down with the head of India operations for an emergency review of the situation. What happens next is the interesting bit.
You would expect him to retaliate like your CEO: Announce a review of HR policies, organize several all-hands meet, convene a special meeting of all new recruits, promise to improve things, and then transfer all new recruits to the Yemen office.
But in fact Raj’s CEO, a well-loved chap by all accounts, was honestly, genuinely shocked by the feedback he got. While he knew his team worked very hard, he had no idea people were putting in some terrible hours. Or that the new recruits were so upset.
While Raj and company continue to have the odd endless day at work, life has improved tremendously. His CEO, my friend told me, has since tried to simplify and shorten internal reports and presentations, and organize the occasional off-site to keep an eye on things.
“Strange, no?” my friend thought aloud as we spooned into a Hazelnut Encrusted Cardiac Arrest for dessert. “Sometimes managers really don’t get what people feel. Honest feedback could work...”
Most of us, I feel, tend to think that there is no point in giving our companies feedback. We assume that everything we feel is universally felt and universally ignored. So then what is the point in highlighting problems? Add some generous corporate cynicism to this feeling of helplessness and what you have is a system that never listens to itself. And, therefore, will perhaps never improve.
Sure. Many of you probably work in companies that use employee feedback forms to clean canteen tables. But then, like American banks, some of you probably don’t give your companies enough credit.
The first resignation letter I ever wrote was also my finest. In 2001, with youthful indignation bristling through me, I wrote a 2,000-word magnum opus with a meticulous description of every problem I faced, and how it drove me to quitting. Later, a senior manager asked me why I didn’t say a single thing when I was working there, and left all my feedback for the resignation letter. They would look into all my complaints. Would I care to give this a second chance?
That was out of the question. I had already seen heady dreams of spending my full and final settlement on biryani and Marco Polo beer.
But he did have a point. Why did I never speak up? One wonders.
So the next time you are sitting in office at 3am on a Sunday morning, engaged in mortal combat with a brutal spreadsheet, don’t just give up. Maybe, talking to someone will help. If it doesn’t, don’t worry. Anyway you’re in office alone. Connect the coffee machine to the email server. Unleash tomato soup.
Cubiclenama takes a weekly look at the pleasures and perils of corporate life. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org