What the Better.com PR disaster tells us about hiring and firing at Cyberia, and how we’re making things better in India

The bewildering insensitivity of Better.com’s Indian-born and US-based CEO Vishal Garg, who last week laid off 900 of his employees in India and the US, via a Zoom conference call, creates a global outrage.

U.S. news sources in the tech media discovered that the massive layoffs – of 9% of its 10,000 total employees – just weeks before the holiday season, came even as the online mortgage company was shut down. on the verge of securing an additional investment of $ 750 million.

Cynics suggest that perhaps downsizing was a condition for getting the cash injection – hence the haste.

Faced with backlash – after affected employees uploaded zoom firing session to YouTube – Garg was delayed mea culpa, but that also did not satisfy, because other media like The daily beast, revealed he paid himself a $ 25 million cash bonus last year at the height of the Covid pandemic.

Yet hardly any of the top Indian bosses had a comment. Harsh Goenka, president of the RPG group, was an exception. He tweeted: “My heart went to the 900 employees… Completely false! Do it individually. And in person. And not before Christmas and after a recent injection of $ 750 million. This is how companies get a heartless label! ”

If layoff over a conference call is a new low in corporate insensitivity, it appears to be a natural progression in human resource practices in recent years.

The prolonged lockdown and resulting working from home for millions of employees around the world appear to have encouraged many companies – especially in the tech sector – to cite scaled-down activities and to fire at will and without notice by email, WhatsApp or plain text message. .

Gone are the days of courtesy and courtesy, when respected companies went through a structured appraisal process and then invited the targeted employee to a session with an HR manager and advisor, in order to cushion the shock of a dismissal?

This kind of scenario today looks like a Camelot or a Ram rajya of an earlier age.

Email non-termination clause
It was not always so, at least not until the turn of the century. When India-born Arun Sarin, one of the world’s largest telecommunications leaders, joined Vodafone as Global CEO in 2000, he wrote respect in his contract: he insisted on a clause that he could not not be made redundant by the then fairly recent electronic mail technology. .

He wanted to be told to his face (in this case, he left on his own so that the possibility would not arise).

Sarin was wise to make his stipulation, although American companies had perfected the art of not tell the employees across the way that they were made redundant.

The most cowardly companies entrust this unpleasant task to “specialists” who call themselves “end-of-career facilitators” or “career transition counselors”.

These companies do not lay people off: oh no !, they “let go”, “reduce”, “resize”, “lateralize”, “descent”, “give up” or offer “career alternatives” or “free you for the future. “.

At a time when Donald Trump was making a national slogan with “You’re Fired” on his reality TV show, The apprentice, which aired from 2004, no employer really meant the words.

The 2009 film, In the air, perfectly reflected this insensitive corporate cocoon: George Clooney is a termination specialist. His job is to fly over the United States, visiting companies too disgusted to lay off their own. He does it for them in interviews with people lined up for the chop. A new coworker (played by Anna Kendrick) wants to cut costs, by doing it with video conferencing, but he proves to her that this is too impersonal and emotionally affects employees when they are most vulnerable – leading them to suicide.

‘Pulled by a bot’

In the air was a big hit because it was so painfully real. But the facts turn out to be even more frightening than the fiction. In June of this year, Bloomberg came out with a talk titled: “Fired by a bot on Amazon: it’s you against the machine”.

He revealed that Amazon was hiring some 4 million “Flex” workers – including 3 million in the United States – to make deliveries using their own transportation, supplementing the fleet managed by the company’s staff.

The article states: “At Amazon, machines are often the boss – hire, review and fire millions of people with little or no human oversight. Increasingly, the company is also handing over its human resources to machines, using software not only to manage workers in its warehouses, but to oversee contract drivers, independent delivery companies, and even the performance of its employees. office. ”

“Flexible drivers find that algorithms monitor their every move. Did they get to the delivery station when they said they would? Have they completed their route in the prescribed window. Amazon’s algorithms analyze the incoming data stream for performance patterns and decide which drivers get the most routes and which are disabled. Human returns are rare, ”he adds.

Bloomberg interviewed 15 Amazon Flex drivers, including four who say they were wrongly fired, as well as former Amazon officials who say the largely automated system is not sufficiently responsive to the real-world challenges drivers face. every day.

The article quotes fired ex-Amazonians citing emails from Flex supervisors who sent the layoff missive: The signatories have names like Madhu, Bhanu Prakash, Syam, Gangadharan, Pavani G and Banerjee, which means may -be the task of executing a dismissal decision taken. by a computer bot to an employee in the United States, is transmitted by an Amazon team in India.

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

Concert workers at Mercy Of Software

Many businesses have automated operations, including human resource operations. A September 2021 survey in 15 countries by the nonprofit media group Rest of the world, entitled Global concert workers finds that these casual workers, including lakhs in India who work for local delivery companies, are at the mercy of automated performance software that constantly demands that they work faster and deliver faster, which decides how many hours they have to work, what they get paid – without an appeal process.

Large companies that receive thousands of applications use computers to scan resume text and create a more manageable shortlist of a dozen applicants before human eyes assess them.

Fair enough.

But can performance be computer assessed to the point of recommending termination?

HR with humanity, from India

Bengaluru-based Pradeep Gopi doesn’t think so. A veteran of more than a decade who has led human resources at several tech startups in India and the United States, Pradeep believes that evaluating an employee’s performance involves several parameters and involves a chain of command from the immediate supervisor. to the head of a group or a division.

“No computer algorithm can do such a critical assessment, because there are simply too many variables that cannot be quantified. Let us not forget that we are dealing with a human being. We have to respect that. ”

In his experience, Indian companies, especially startups, have a much more humane and sensitive policy when it comes to letting someone go. If a mass layoff involving more than 10 employees is needed, the CEO invariably responds and explains the compelling reasons – perhaps the business has been acquired, or is in huge loss, or has lost key customers.

Then HR steps in and engages each employee to work out their severance package which in India is typically around 1-3 months’ pay as severance pay.

When an individual employee falls short, they are told – and given a reasonable chance to improve – for up to 6 months.

If a decision is then made to lay off, Indian employers, on the whole, show compassion and encourage HR managers to help the employee move to another company if possible, Pradeep explains.

We may not be perfect, but Indian business leaders can possibly teach global multinationals and Western corporations 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 raised in good manners.

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

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