A slight shift in gear. Today, I want to talk about a previous lifetime. I had just graduated from an undergraduate program in computer engineering and was floundering in terms of next steps. It seems odd to me that when we are not engaged in studies or profession we experience the sensation of floundering even though actually, we are on perfectly stable ground. In fact, one can argue that life in the absence of professional engagement is as stable as it can possibly be. When one is employed, one is traveling on the rather rocky boat of performance ratings, HR appraisals, scalability into other roles, availability of positions and overall company strategy. Yet, this volatile situation of employment is what we call stability. It earns us money after all and without money, we can’t take vacations from employment. If you want to see real floundering, listen to this leaked termination interview from the legendary Tata Consultancy Services company.
If you ignored that and are reading on (or if they deleted the clip), the sound clip contains some sort of HR manager (I imagine) explaining to a female employee (I hope she’s female) that she “will not be able to continue” after 30 days. He then explains how it will all be handled and what kind of compensation they will offer her etc. He also adds that she can ask him questions if she has any. Probably shouldn’t have done that. She takes him up on the offer. That is when the floundering begins. He flails desperately, pulls out obscure corporate jargon like “reasons you can correlate” and “parameters” and some of the terms that make up the rocky corporate boat I talked about earlier. The shocking fact is revealed that the lady has worked for TCS for nine years. She defends her performance ratings and offers what I thought is some really good advice about how to conduct exit interviews. At this point, the HR manager is all but drowning in his own little pond and then (the Bollywood moment), you hear another voice. A surer, more confident voice. Also female. Who basically tells this lady the truth, finally. The truth being that that they retained their best people according to performance ratings and she didn’t make the cut and they are not at liberty to discuss any more specifics. Thank God for complete, cold honesty.
“Where do I sign?” says the baffled employee.
Now, it is achingly enticing to create a martyr out of this lady who is getting fired and brand the management as evil. After all, she worked honestly for nine years and got some reasonable ratings all the while trying to live her life so why should she be cut? She’s a victim. Maybe, but that’s not important. There is only one difference between the employee and the managers. They have embraced the corporate TCS value system and she has not. That’s it. Other stories about morality are valid but not practical.
So, is practicality and reverence for numbers the TCS corporate value system? From the testimony of the more confident female manager in the interview, it seems that’s how TCS is run. Stone cold practicality for the sake of profit. Perform or die. Those who embrace the profit motive unabashedly will be seen as competent and those who question it or seem hesitant are gradually marginalized. Which is why, If I were managing the guy who is conducting the exit interview, I’d have a serious conversation with him and probably drop him a C rating for the current appraisal period. The way to get ahead is to fall in line and look sharp while you do it. Ok, so we agree. TCS is run on a system that values performance as the most important thing. Everything else being secondary but still important. Fine. If you are a youngster who is about to sign on to a job at TCS, Infosys and other clone companies, here is what you can expect. You are agreeing to compete to obtain the best financial outcomes. Everything else is secondary. Being a team player, a nice person, having professional etiquette, whatever else. Its all in the service of getting results.
Back to my previous lifetime. After some floundering, I accepted a job with TCS and went to Kerala to attend their training program. At the end of three months, they gave me a Top Performer’s Award. A week after that, I quit.
Wait, what? A management hired for the choice purpose of promoting competence could not retain a person who according to their own evaluation, was among the most competent people to enter the company. How? Why? The reason I eventually quit is because I ran into a roadblock with what they call the MATC, the Management Allocation Task Committee. An organization of spectacular rigidity with a militaristic adherence to policy. They refused to let me work in the branch office of my choice just because someone at another branch deemed me more suited to work there. And they had already made their allocations, sorry. Please reorganize your life so we don’t have to reorganize out spreadsheets. The reason I say “eventually” is because the training program was basically a series of red flags. A military colonel was hired to run it. Ok. Maybe he understands that civilians expect different kind of leadership. No, he didn’t. One day they searched all our hotel rooms and removed irons and hair dryers from our closets because the wiring was not strong enough to take the voltage and it was policy that we had to use the hotel ironing services. Breach of privacy? Completely unethical and borderline illegal? They didn’t care. By the time the thing with the MATC happened, I was already through.
I don’t see the corporate management at TCS as evil. I see it as corrupt, lazy and incompetent. Corrupt, because they do not uphold their own value system of promoting competence and results. Lazy because they adhere blindly to policy bringing no discretion, flexibility or intelligence to the decision making process despite years of experience and/or MBA degrees. Incompetent because they apply an outdated, defunct pyramid structure that is only superficially different from feudal fiefdoms in the Middle Ages or British colonial systems for administering the Raj. So, that is what you are actually signing on to when you join one of these behemoth corporate enterprises. You are signing on to an apparent commitment to competition and results oriented atmosphere all the while being administered by an outdated system of evaluation and managed by lazy, corrupt people who do not themselves bring to the table a zest for results, efficiency and innovation and merely lean the way they have to to keep the boat steady. In effect, you are signing on to nothing. There is no value system other than a sycophantic zeal to please your superiors and basically do whatever it takes.
Why this crisis of management? I have no idea. I can’t say because I quit after three months. Here is what I can say. If you are signing a corporate agreement of employment, please do your homework. Talk to people. Know what you are getting into. Ask yourself if that is the type of thing you want to get into. If you are a fresh graduate engineer then like me, I’m sure you received no education in ethics, meditation or strategy. Please use the Internet, personal role models and literature to develop a practice of personal reflection. Know that not having a job for a while is perfectly fine. Getting laid off is not a big deal, just like flunking an exam is not a big deal. It says nothing about your innate worth or chances of survival. All it says is that you failed to embrace an arbitrary value system. If you can’t find a job that satisfies your personal value system (this is highly highly unlikely btw in this global economy), start your own company. Propound your own theory for how the world should work. Ponder whether profit is really what we need. Does efficiency trump all? If you are the lady in the exit interview, I wish you the best. Thank you for standing up for yourself and asking questions without being rude or aggressive. You are now a personal role model for me. I know you will move on to better things.