What the Shutting Down of a Company Taught Me About Indian Top Management

First Person

What the Shutting Down of a Company Taught Me About Indian Top Management

Illustration: Arati Gujar

The concept of a company “shutting down” was alien to me until a few months ago – a year and a half into my first job – when it presented itself at my doorstep. It was a lot like how Harry Potter was presented at the Dursleys; an unwanted, unplanned, and a wholly terrifying event. 

At 23, my distinct attitude toward employment had been shaped by the various government jobs that everyone in my family has held over the years. In this universe, the “Employee” is someone who works, gets paid, and if unhappy, leaves the “Employer” for better opportunities. It’s never the other way round: The Employer doesn’t randomly disappear in the middle of the night like a runaway groom suddenly unable to cope with the thought of a marriage. But in my case, that is exactly how it panned out.

In the months since, I have obsessively surfed the internet for anything that closely resembled “Signs That Your Company Is On The Verge Of Shutting Down”, coming across several articles that listed red flags which I recognised all too well now. The first of these was the most obvious: delayed salary. When it happened to us back in May, it was brushed away as a temporary inconvenience with little thought just like most inaugural red flags are in relationships. Delayed salaries happened sometimes, we told ourselves, patiently awaiting the words “Salary Credited” to arrive in its own time on our phones.

Then, 10 days into the next month, the second sign emerged: an unusually tight-lipped HR accompanied by worried brows on all the middle management. Come to think of it, this was the turning point, given that it shackled us in clear definitions: From then on, we were a company “under duress” and things “were not all right.” It was also at this moment that the wisest of us searched for safer harbours to scamper to, like rats fleeing from a sinking ship. Within the next month, a flurry of resignations came in and those of us who were fooling ourselves into believing that things would eventually work out watched the Leavers go with a mixture of confusion and helplessness. 

Now I often wonder whether the right kind of leadership at that point might have made the transition into those final months smoother, if not saved the company. That period was like purgatory: There was no official word on the state of affairs from the Big Boss and only a barrage of unending, unverified, vicious rumours about the possible future. These ranged from “we were a loss-making venture”, “we didn’t make sense in the overall business strategy of our parent company” to “we didn’t make sense in the overall business strategy of any company who might have been prospective bidders” and my personal favourite, “the authorities were on to our parent company who had been using us to launder their hoards of black money into white.”

This noise was enough to force a Town Hall meeting with the top management. In typical Indian fashion, it went the worst of ways. Instead of providing reassurance and a game plan, the Big Boss spent the first half ducking the tough questions (“When will we get paid?” “What’s the outlook like?”) and the second half, berating employees for indulging in morale-damaging rumours that were affecting the value of the company and by extension making it harder to entice any prospective bidder. By the end of that Town Hall, we had as little clarity as we had before it. 

It must have been unimaginably tough for the middle management, who were caught between the unresponsive bigg bosses and dissatisfied employees, to both give reassurance and keep the ship running.

Following the dramatic redundancy of the meet, team members turned to the heads of their respective departments. “Should we be looking for other jobs?” we asked. “Yes,” came the reply. Even this answer merely tip-toed around the larger question, being thinly veiled enough to indicate that as middle management, they couldn’t say anything for certain, but that they had been around the block enough to know that things would go from bad to worse. True to tradition, it did.

It must have been unimaginably tough for the middle management, who were caught between the unresponsive bigg bosses and dissatisfied employees, to both give reassurance and keep the ship running. I’m not sure if every tragedy has a silver lining, but they were undeniably ours. They didn’t just navigate the declining morale of over 250 people who’d be soon left jobless but ensured that we were still functioning to the best of our abilities. 

Thankfully, I managed to land a job offer two months since the uncertainty started. Up until then, I had been following the development with a certain degree of detachment, owing to my privilege. I had a safety net in the form of my father; I was far removed from the terrifying actuality of what losing a job really entailed. It might even seem cruel that a lifeboat appeared out of nowhere for a person who needed it the least, especially when several of my co-workers had families to support, bills and loans to pay, and even kids to fend for. 

These were people who had spent the better part of a decade working there and over the years their skill sets became intimately intertwined with the specific way the company worked. I was the polar opposite: They were older, better paid, more rigid with their professional expectations, and thus, far less employable. In the weeks after, I watched them slave away at work every day, acutely aware of the guilt that this slow spiral into oblivion would just be an anecdote in my life, but for them, it would be the event that upended their lives. Some of them even clung on to hope, even when things were at a point of no return. I can’t remember a single moment where my privilege has ever been this stark.

 The last month of my first job was easily the most absurd period of my life. There were secret meetings among the middle management, a hiring freeze, mounting uncertainty, and a top management that paraded their lack of empathy, expected work to continue as if nothing was amiss. Deadlines still had to be met and quality had to be maintained. At that point, the only thing that we all knew for certain was the fact that for our bosses, we didn’t matter. The end ultimately came a few days after I left in the form of a midnight email. This is the end, it said, followed by rows upon rows of achievements of the company.  Tacked on at the end, like nothing more than an afterthought was one line that focused on the future of the employees, which would apparently be “discussed”. 

The details of my employment – my designation or the identity of my company and co-workers – aren’t as important as the realisation that what happened to us could easily happen to scores of employees across the country. As the country is in the grip of the worst economic slowdown in a decade, this is a familiar story that is repeated city-to-city, sector-to-sector, and person-to-person, with alarming impunity. The only scars that I bear from this time is that my CV will now mention a defunct company. But I was one of the few who survived.