Simon was the CHRO in a multinational organisation. He had steadily tasted success and turned busier with every passing year. The practice of adjusting to different time zones for late-night meetings and conference calls was second nature to him. This led to him waking late to an empty house on weekdays since his kids were at school and his wife was at her office. He only had the breakfast and newspaper waiting for him at the dining table with empty chairs. The weekends were synonymous with late-night visits to malls or socialising with friends and extended family members until wee hours in the morning. Work-related travel was inevitable.
This time, however, owing to the COVID-19 Pandemic and the subsequent ban on international travel, Simon was stuck in India. His family was in London and he had come to India with the dual purpose of completing a shortterm assignment and to be with his parents for a few weeks. However, going by the global indications, a sense of normalcy seemed like a far-fetched idea. He was, however, hopeful to be able to travel back to London in a month’s time. But that was not to be.
After a video call with his wife and kids, apprising them of the latest situation, he started scanning various apps on his phone. He clicked on a popular social media site for business networking after a gap of several months since he had been neck-deep in work. As he scrolled through it, a particular post caught his attention. It was written by a lady. She had mentioned that she is a single mother with two children. Not only had she lost her husband recently due to a COVIDinduced lung infection, but she had also lost her job due to a series of layoffs in her company. Besides taking care of her own children she also had the responsibility of the inlaws who were staying with her.
Simon checked her profile. She was a postgraduate in Economics with two years of work experience in HR in a mid-sized firm in Chennai, located in the southern part of India.
The post ended, “… I am badly in need of a job at this point. Please note that I have 40% disability, but I can handle things independently and work in a system.”
As he scrolled further, there was another post by a man with a graduate degree in Finance, who had stated he was looking for job opportunities, highlighting communication skills and leadership qualities as his strengths. He had lost his father due to a sudden cardiac arrest and had stated that there was no other earning member left in the family. He too needed a job. Another post stared at him. The qualifications, coordinates of the candidates, and a plea for jobs which always ended with, “if you don’t have any vacancies please like, comment and share this post for better reach and visibility.”
Over the next few days, Simon realised that the number of such posts had begun showing an upward trend. Fresh graduates from some of the top engineering and management colleges of the country, a few senior managers and working executives with more than a decade or two of work experience were posting with a plea for jobs after being rendered jobless due to multiple reasons. One of his school friends too had joined this wave.
Companies were staring at huge financial losses and the market sentiment was at an all-time low. And for the first time, the automobile companies were heading for zero sales. Both lives and livelihood were at stake. On the one hand, Simon felt, it was great that people were opening up and talking about their difficulties with strangers, while on the other, there was a sense of vicarious loss.
He recalled a conversation with his mother a few days ago. She seemed troubled about a distant relative’s condition. The relative had suffered a paralytic attack because of which he had lost his job. He had also exhausted his health insurance and was in dire need of money for his treatment. His wife, a graduate, was not in a position to work due to her husband’s condition. Their son, aged 20 years, was still studying but needed to immediately start earning because of the father’s ailment.
Simon had referred his case to many organisations and also amongst his network of friends and acquaintances. But, due to the pandemic and hiring freeze in most companies, nothing could be done. Everything was in ‘freeze mode’. When he conveyed this to his mother, the conversation ended with a sigh.
“Even you could not help these people in need!”
The relative’s son was employed by a local hospital as a helper in the COVID ward. The last Simon heard about him was that he was down with high fever and shortness of breath. Today, as he sipped tea while sitting in the balcony, he was watching the sunrise after years. He was more mindful of the surroundings, but disturbed. Several thoughts were crossing his mind.
“Mom was right, of what use is my position if I cannot help others!”
“But why should I feel guilty? Survival of the fittest is the reality.”
“How can I think so selfishly!”
“But things are not in my control.”
“I am the CHRO. An Alumnus of a top Ivy League school. Have done well in life.”
“But I cannot do anything for anyone.”
The perils unleashed by the environmental uncertainties had affected everyone, directly or indirectly. His own company had announced a hiring freeze. Even layoffs could not be ruled out if the situation aggravated in the next few months. He had an uneasy feeling that he would then be expected to implement those layoffs. His mind was juggling between the heart and the brain. All of a sudden, he felt totally distraught.
“When will this all end? Will it ever? Why do I feel so helpless? Can I do something or just remain a mute spectator?”
Dr Sonal Shree is Assistant Professor, SIBM Pune, a constituent of Symbiosis International University.
CASE STUDY ANALYSIS
Analysis By Ravi Mishra
Ravi Mishra is Senior Vice President HR for Advanced Materials Business, Aditya Birla Group.
Can I do something or just remain a mute spectator?” these are words echoing in the minds of many people like Simon today. Is it a fact or emotional turbulence or is COVID-19 is used as a reason by the businesses to draw conclusions from balance sheets? Apparently, we have forgotten the tenets of community care and social upbringing when most of the big businesses have grown on the foundation of philanthropy and national development.
Simon’s pain aggravated after he shared his helplessness with his father who believes that his son, a CHRO in a multinational firm, can help someone to earn their livelihood during times of crisis. However, in truth, Simon is an employee with a defined role and authority in a system called organisation. We concur that every organisation has profit as its objective so as to survive and sustain.
While we have witnessed human vulnerability during world wars and calamities, we fail to agree that the economy can be weakened by a pandemic wherein Government and the business sector fail to play a proactive role. We also need them to put their words into action during such situations. The impact of the pandemic is multifold- infected people survived but at a huge financial cost and those who succumbed left their families paralysed –financially and emotionally.
Many entrepreneurs in sectors such as travel and tourism, who were providing livelihood to many people had to shut down their businesses and fight for their survival. In my opinion, many industries did respond with a kind gesture to support people to be on job. On one side, people were facing the challenge of medical expenditure and were also losing their jobs. They were sharing their plight on various social media platforms seeking jobs, financial assistance or medical help. Since people are aware that Simon is a CHRO, and hiring is one of the core functions, they approached him either directly or through his father. It was very difficult for Simon to share his helplessness with his father. Simon may have helped many people in the past to get the job they deserved on the basis of merit, but the challenge today is different since companies are not hiring but retrenching. India is a country with a huge population and does not provide social security to its citizens, unlike several western countries.
It is expected of organisations to react to such an eventuality and its impact on people in a more considerate manner. When people make themselves available 24×7 and offer their support to the business keeping their personal challenges aside, organisations must also rise to reciprocate as much as they can.
Lastly, people like Simon should not feel that they are helpless or irrelevant. They must instead try to create an environment by influencing the company to harbour support for people, and not retrench them in a hurry as an easy means to reduce liability. If professionals like us communicate within and around us in appropriate forums, it will help people and establish the organisational credibility at large. Given the fact that people are suffering and sharing their pain, the time is ripe to offer support. It is time for Simon to display his gumption and share peoples’ suffering and provide the right support in terms of employment support, leaving retrenchment as the last option.
Analysis By Sandeep Magavi
Sandeep Magavi is GIC Learning Leader - Growth Platforms & Industry, IBM INDIA.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been unprecedented in its impact, leaving no aspect of life unaffected across the world. From day-to-day impacts on work, school, social gatherings and travel, to larger shockwaves to the world’s economy and healthcare systems, COVID-19 is a once-in-a-lifetime crisis on the global stage. And with such a large crisis come even larger, albeit, difficult questions to answer. Questions that tug at the ethical dilemmas the crisis has brought to the forefront.
The given scenario reflects not just the moral dilemmas that arose out of situational complexities, but also, and more importantly, the introspection that most of us indulged in – on the question of the larger good and business ethics vis-à-vis revenues and profitability. This marks a change in how we as individuals have begun humanising associations beyond the prism of enterprise profitability. Ethical considerations and not just economic ones are at the core of several dilemmas facing business establishments today, and thereby, the focus on employee wellbeing within the limits of their capacity.
As with Simon, many senior association executives faced difficult decisions about how to protect their organisation’s financial health during the pandemic. With revenues declining some organisations have been forced to reduce the size of their staff. Unfortunately, more layoffs may be necessary as the economy continues to feel the ongoing effects of the crisis.
While layoffs are difficult decisions for any Exec, it gets compounded further for frontline managers. Many a time, downsizing within an org goes beyond moral dilemmas and maybe unavoidable given the economic realities.
However, downsizing with fairness and as much transparency as possible helps in preserving our remaining team’s cohesion and position the organisation for a better future. However, certain areas absolutely require special focus from an ethics point of view. A few important considerations are:-
- Possible engagement with employees to base staffing decisions on the association’s future direction and needs, employees will better understand the business case for layoffs
- Perceptions matter. If employees believe you were “playing favourites” - the negative impact on the person in question apart from the one on employees who remain has a longterm impact. Carefully consider the process for implementing the layoffs and ensure that it is as humane as possible. It pays to remember that staff cohesiveness is based on relationships. The treatment of one employee reverberates to others.
Another critical issue heavy with symbolism is executive compensation. The announcement of a voluntary pay cut by executives can go a long way toward engendering the sense that “we’re all in this together.”
Decision-makers in any organisation have the responsibility to protect the organisation they lead and ensure its long-term viability. This may require tough decisions, including whether to furlough or lay off employees. While those decisions may be unavoidable in these uncertain economic times, how you carry them out can make a meaningful difference to all stakeholders.
Nonetheless, apart from our roles as decision-makers within an org, we go back to the human in the equation. According to Wayne Cascio, Professor of Management, University of Colorado, “The psychological impact of layoffs is often forgotten or not given its due.” There is always a psychological impact on the ones who have been laid off (and much beyond monetary value), a survivor syndrome with the ones who retained their jobs, and a deep sense of guilt for the decision-makers. All of these need to be addressed very objectively, and humanely. There is no business logic that can possibly be applied. Communication, empathy and engagement are the only possible levers to lessen the impact across all stakeholders.
To quote Sir Winston Churchill, “Before you can inspire with emotion, you must be swamped with it yourself. Before you can move their tears, your own must flow. To convince them, you yourself must first believe.”
Is your organisation post-COVID-ready?
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