Large-scale white-collar displacement at middle and senior levels is a relatively new phenomenon and that too without the safety net of trade unions. Here is what one should do to safeguard oneself.
With reforms and economic liberalisation also comes a loosening of the rigid structures of industrial regulation. A natural corollary of free market competition is allowing greater leeway to businesses for managing their operations. And a key variable of that is manpower headcount.
It is not as if mergers, acquisitions and retrenchments were unknown in India. But, traditionally, they took place within a safety net where primarily trade unions negotiated on behalf of their constituents. However, large-scale white-collar displacement at middle and senior levels is a relatively new phenomenon in the Indian business environment, which both employees and employers are ill equipped to handle. Consolidations, buyouts and exits are fast becoming the order of the day. Inefficient units — often burdened with huge debt — are being forced to sell out by lenders as banks try to get rid of their non-productive assets (NPAs). Home-grown entrepreneurs and promoters cash in on the entry of international majors and global brands as the Indian market opens up. Others simply feel the need to cut the flab, get leaner and fitter in a competitive environment.
This is new uncharted terrain, both for employees and employers. It will take some time for organisations to develop HR processes to deal with such situations. Till then, companies may be prone to handling separations in a ham-handed and, if one may say so, even selfish manner, which can displace many lives and families.
People like to believe that pink slips and retrenchment — like terminal ailments and fatal accidents — happen only to others. But, in a volatile, uncertain and fast changing world it pays to ‘be prepared’, as the Boy Scouts say. Here are a few tips on how to go about it:
• Reality check: To begin with, it is important to be realistic about one’s place in the organisation. A periodic objective self-assessment is a healthy practice like annual medical check-ups. As organisations become less patriarchal and impersonal there is no need to be apologetic about putting one’s career first.
• Looking around: Part of the reality check process is also a regular market scan and scenario analysis. A sense of which direction the organisation is headed is a critical data point in determining one’s own prospects and next career moves. Warning signals in the sky have to be read early. It is wise to get off and mount another horse while one’s career graph is on the ascendant than when it has plateaued or is dipping.
• Sharpening the saw: Very often we stop learning on the job. Being ahead of the knowledge curve is imperative to stay relevant in today’s knowledge economy. So, continuously invest in self-development — both in domain expertise and leadership skills — to maintain professional currency.
• Worshipping false gods: Do not get lulled into complacence. Many bosses feel it is their responsibility to paint a rosy picture for their subordinates. Always take blanket ‘FOB’ (Future is bright) statements with a pinch of salt. Critically look at the boss’ own track record of delivering on promises and her/his position within the organisation. Does the boss have the necessary clout or authority to give assurance to people or is she/he simply doing lip service? While trust is important, blind faith is being professionally naïve. Many a ‘God’ at the workplace has been known to let down ‘devotees’ in moments of crisis — driven by the age-old instinct of self-preservation.
• Timing is everything: If there are signals of a storm ahead, jumping the ship too early may be as much a mistake as staying on too late. Unfortunately, in the tough world of business there are no bravery awards for the last man standing. If separation is inevitable, then it is best to leave at a time of one’s own choice — as far as practical — and avoid ‘distress sale’
• Garden leave: Yet, there can be no perfect moment. Therefore, it is important to prepare the family for a rough patch ahead without making them feel insecure. At the same time, one should be mentally prepared to take a short career break, sabbatical or ‘garden leave’ as it is fashionably referred to these days.
• Leave on a positive note: Redundancies and displacements at the time of mergers, acquisitions and restructuring are becoming common today. Organisations, therefore, do not hold it against new incumbents and judge them on merits — unless background checks throw up any strong negatives either by way or competencies — or more importantly, integrity. Hence, it is prudent not to burn bridges while quitting or leave in a cloud of smoke.
• Rediscover the self: During a long career, we seldom have the time to sit back, reflect and take stock of life. Treat a career recess as an opportunity for that. Dive deep into the self to discover your strengths, values, dreams and aspirations. Re-establish contact with your inner self to get answers to these questions and visualise a picture of what you want to do with the rest of your life. Reflect on the goals, opportunities, enablers and challenges.
• Reach out: Empirical evidence suggests that loss of job is among the three major causes of depression. Therefore, do not allow the psychological impact of separation affect you. Granted that is easier said than done — so do not feel shy of seeking help. Sometimes, going on a retreat like Vipasanna can work wonders for individuals. Talking to a counsellor, a professional life and career coach or a qualified psychologist can also be of great help. Many companies have begun to sponsor the latter for parting employees.
• Stay positive: Attitude is the key. Many people have found, to their surprise, that such forced separations have opened up new doors that they had never imagined existed before. Therefore, it is important not to lose either self-confidence or self-esteem. Faith — whatever it might mean to you — helps one stay rooted and centred.
• Be flexible: Keep an open mind to opportunities. If it means temporary dislocation or living away from the family, it might be a pain worth taking for a brighter future. Above all, don’t panic. You are not the only one to go through a rough patch or a career trough. It happens to the best of us.
• Be a hard negotiator: While discussing a ‘handshake’, make sure it is at least made of stainless steel if not gold or silver. Similarly, if the organisation wants to retain you through the period of transition, ask for your price by way of a retention bonus. Either way, do not let HR colleagues (who have their own KRAs to meet) short-change you with hugs and kisses and keep the goodies at the time of saying good-bye.
• Finally, should you decide to stay on after a take-over, do your own due-diligence about the new employer — especially on cultural issues, remuneration structure and business ethic. There is little point in jumping from the frying pan into the fire. At senior levels, it may be possible to even negotiate a ‘pre-nuptial’ separation package with the new company — in the event of things not working out after a time. This is increasingly becoming standard industry practice, and therefore, worth checking out.
Finally, we are as much the masters of our careers as we are of our own destinies. Tom Peters, American writer on business management practices, said that we are the CEOs of our own company — Me Inc. Let us believe and behave as one.
(The author worked in senior leadership positions at leading corporates including Hindustan Unilever, and is deeply interested in people and people issues. He is a practicing life-Coach for young professionals. In his free time he writes, blogs and savours Scotch. Follow him on Twitter @SandipGhose.)