What The Better.com PR Disaster Tells Us About Hiring And Firing In Cyberia, And How We Do Things Better In India

by Anand Parthasarathy - Dec 11, 2021 12:17 PM +05:30 IST
What The Better.com PR Disaster Tells Us About Hiring And Firing In Cyberia,  And How We Do Things Better In India(Pixabay)
  • An Indian-origin CEO at an American online mortgage company recently fired 900 employees within 3 minutes, in a Zoom conference call.

    This has raised questions over corporate and HR insensitivity, especially in the global Infotech sector.

The mind-boggling insensitivity of Indian-origin, US-based CEO of Better.com, Vishal Garg, who last week fired 900 of his employees in India and the US, via a Zoom conference call, is creating worldwide outrage.

US news sources in the technology media dug out that the mass sackings — of 9 per cent of its total workforce of 10,000 — only weeks before the holiday season, came even as the online mortgage company was about to get additional investment of $750 million.

Cynics suggest that the downsizing was, perhaps, a condition for getting the infusion of cash — hence the hurry.

Faced with a savage backlash — after affected employees uploaded the zoom sacking session on YouTube — Garg did a belated mea culpa, but that too failed to satisfy, as other media like The Daily Beast, revealed that he had paid himself a $25 million cash bonus last year at the height of the Covid pandemic.

Yet, hardly any of India’s corporate honchos had any comment to make. Harsh Goenka, Chairman of the RPG Group, was an exception. He tweeted: "My heart went out to the 900 employees …Totally wrong! Do it on a one on one basis. And in person. And not before Christmas and after a $750 mn recent infusion. This is how Corporates get a heartless tag!”

If firing through a conference call is a new low in corporate callousness, it seems to be a natural progression from Human Resource practices in recent years.

The extended lockdown and consequent work-from-home for millions of employees worldwide, appears to have emboldened many enterprises — especially in the technology sector — to cite reduced business and fire at will and with no notice via email, WhatsApp or a plain text message.

Are the days of civility and courtesy dead, when respected corporates went through a structured evaluation process, then invited the targeted employee for a session with a HR executive and a counsellor, to cushion the shock of a termination?

That sort of scenario seems today like a Camelot or a Ram Rajya of an earlier age.

No-Email-Firing Clause
It was not always so, at least not till the turn of the century. When India-born Arun Sarin, one of the world’s top telecom leaders, joined Vodafone as global CEO in 2000, he wrote respect into his contract: he insisted on a clause that he couldn’t be fired by the then fairly new technology of email.

He wanted to be told to his face (as it happened, he left on his own so the contingency did not arise).

Sarin was wise to make his stipulation, though American corporations have perfected the art of not telling employees to their face that they were being fired.

The more cowardly companies outsource this unpleasant task to ‘specialists’ who call themselves ‘termination facilitators’ or “career transition counsellors”.

These corporations don’t fire: oh no!, They ‘let go’ ‘downsize’, ‘resize’, ‘lateralize’, ‘decruit’, ‘dehire’ or provide ‘career alternatives’ or ‘free you up for the future’.

In an era where Donald Trump made a national catch phrase out of “You’re fired” in his TV reality show, The Apprentice, which aired from 2004, no employer actually wanted to say the words.

The 2009 movie, Up in the Air, reflected this callous corporate cocoon perfectly: George Clooney is a specialist in employee termination. His job is to fly across the US, visiting companies too squeamish to do their own sacking. He does it for them in interviews with people lined up for the chop. A new colleague (played by Anna Kendrick) wants to cut costs, by doing this with a video conference call, but he proves to her that this is too impersonal and emotionally affects employees when they are most vulnerable — driving one to suicide.

'Fired By A Bot'

Up in the Air was a big hit because it was so painfully real. But fact is turning out to be even more frightening than fiction. In June this year, Bloomberg came out with an expose entitled: “Fired by a bot at Amazon: It’s you against the machine”.

It revealed that Amazon hires some 4 million “Flex” workers — 3 million of them in the US — to do deliveries using their own transport, supplementing the company’s own staff-operated fleet.

The article states: “At Amazon, machines are often the boss — hiring, rating and firing millions of people with little or no human oversight. Increasingly, the company is ceding its human-resources operation to machines as well, using software not only to manage workers in its warehouses but to oversee contract drivers, independent delivery companies and even the performance of its office workers."

“Flex drivers discover algorithms are monitoring their every move. Did they get to the delivery station when they said they would? Did they complete their route in the prescribed window. Amazon algorithms scan the gusher of incoming data for performance patterns and decide which drivers get more routes and which are deactivated. Human feedback is rare,“ it further adds.

Bloomberg interviewed 15 Amazon Flex drivers, including four who say they were wrongly terminated, as well as former Amazon managers who say the largely automated system is insufficiently attuned to the real-world challenges drivers face every day.

The article quotes fired ex-Amazonians who cite emails from Flex supervisors who sent the firing missive: the signatories have names like Madhu, Bhanu Prakash, Syam, Gangadharan, Pavani G, and Banerjee, which possibly means the task of executing a firing decision made by a computer bot to an employee in the US, is conveyed by an Amazon team in India.

This is plausible, because Amazon has its Vice-President (Machine Learning) based in India and he oversees a local team of AI engineers.

Gig Workers At Mercy Of Software

Many companies have automated operations including human resource operations. A September 2021 survey across 15 countries by the non-profit media group Rest of World, entitled The Global Gig Workers finds that such casual workers, including lakhs in India who work for local delivery companies, are at the mercy of automated performance software which constantly demands they work faster, and deliver quicker, which decides how many hours they must work, what they are paid — with no appeal process.

Large enterprises which receive thousands of job applications use computers to scan the text of the CV and create a more manageable short list of a dozen applicants before human eyes evaluate them.

Fair enough.

But can performance be evaluated by computer to the extent of recommending a termination?

HR With Humanity, From India

Bengaluru-based Pradeep Gopi thinks not. A veteran of over a decade who has headed Human Resources in multiple tech startups in India and the US, Pradeep feels evaluating an employee’s performance involves multiple parameters and involves a chain of command from the immediate supervisor to the manager of a group or division.

“No computer algorithm can make such a critical evaluation, because there are simply too many variables that can’t be quantified. Let us not forget we are dealing with a human being. We need to respect that.”

In his experience, Indian-owned corporations, especially startups, have a much more humane and sensitive policy when it comes to letting someone go. If at all a mass termination involving more than 10 employees is necessary, the CEO invariably addresses them and explains the compelling reasons — perhaps, the company has been acquired, or is into huge loss or has lost anchor clients.

Then HR steps in and engages each employee to work out his or her termination package which in India is usually about 1 to 3 months salary as severance.

When an individual employee does not measure up, he or she is told — and is given a reasonable chance to improve — anything up to 6 months.

If a decision is then taken to terminate, Indian employers, by and large, are compassionate and encourage HR officers to help the employee relocate to another firm if possible, says Pradeep.

We may not be perfect, but Indian corporate leaders can possibly teach global MNCs and western enterprises a thing or two about compassionate capitalism.

We can show by example that while hiring is a necessity, firing is an art — born in sensitivity and bred in good manners.

Unless, of course, you have been too long in the West and think a Zoom call is all it takes.

Anand Parthasarathy is managing director at Online India Tech Pvt Ltd and a veteran IT journalist who has written about the Indian technology landscape for more than 15 years for The Hindu.

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