Red-faced over a pink slip

LinkedIn Pulse is running a series where professionals reflect on their inevitable career mistakes. The topic and several posts I read in the series made me look back on my career and reflect on the low points. As I reflected, the one ‘low’ that persistently shadowed my thinking and kept saying, “I qualify as #BestMistake, write about me” was the day that I became red-faced over a pink slip.

It was the mid-1990s. I was still in the advertising industry then. I remember the time as a period when mergers and takeovers were all the management rage. Not surprisingly, the agency I was working for got swept up in the blowing winds and merged with another.

Several people, including myself, had severe reservations. I still remember the wise words spoken to the owner by a senior veteran in the business, “This merger will not work because you are marrying your weaknesses.”

He was right. The merger was a disaster. And barely six months into the marriage, the merged management was forced into evaluating the staff strength of the combined entity. You see, the much-vaunted attraction of the merged entity had failed to bring the explosive business growth imagined, and the agency now had double the workforce it needed.

I was not part of the decision but the previous owner had made me privy to the fact. As a result, I knew that come Monday, over 50 people were going to be given their walking papers. The worst part was that a large part of those 50 were people who’s skills had been made redundant by computers – studio artists in the main. These people were unlikely to get another job easily.

I made up my mind to call in sick come Monday. You see, I was against the decision but more important, I just didn’t want to be present and watch people being told that they had lost their jobs.

As it turned out, I was not spared because several colleagues called me in distress to describe the scenes. I still remember the words of one, “Lata, it’s unbearable. There are men who have been with the agency for 15+ years who are crying here. Where will they go?”

Another one called to say, “How could we do this? These people walked in to office to find an envelope on their desks with a termination letter. Don’t they at least deserve to be told in person?”

There was chaos that day. Utter chaos. Several colleagues were making frantic calls trying to get displaced colleagues a job.

All this while the management was silent behind the closed doors of their cabins.

And I? I was the coward who didn’t even go to office and face the music. I had justified my staying away from office by feeling ‘moralistic’. But the truth was I was nothing but a coward and realised it the same day.

Today, I am still red-faced over those pink slips.

But perhaps it was the #BestMistake I made in my career because it made me reflect that taking a moral stance does not mean walking away from a situation. You have to face the music and handle a difficult situation with grace and empathy.

It also made me think hard about the importance of a job to people and their families. Especially when I heard later that one of those men who was handed a pink slip that day spent some months thereafter pretending to go to work. Why? He wanted to spare his pregnant wife the stress of knowing that he was unemployed.

Thankfully, I have never experienced pink slip days after that one and have been spared having to take such decisions or facing the consequences.

Nevertheless, I would still say that fateful day taught me a hard lesson on people management. Which is why I often blog on the subject of career counselling and helping people navigate their careers. See Redefining Corporate Social Responsibility and Why the Hindu rate of growth may not be so bad after all! 

Sadly, I find that most managements are still not handling job losses with empathy. I came across this article just a couple of months ago in the Times of India about 15,000 pink slips in India’s tech corridor in Bengaluru, which narrates almost the same scenes and questions I faced around twenty years ago.

Will we ever learn? Surely, there is a more humane way of handling the need to cut jobs? Retraining for new skills, for example. On that one count at least, I am happy to reflect about this one time when I called in all the secretaries in the Strategic Business Unit (SBU) I was heading in another ad agency to advise them to think of a different career path. I pointed out that their jobs would soon be made redundant by computers. Here, I am happy to report that at least one of them came back to me and asked to be trained in another function. I was happy to accommodate that one person and my whole team pitched in to teach that particular secretary production skills.

##PinkSlip #unemployment #management #humanresources #LinkedInPulse #BestMistake

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Featured Image Credit: Reflections in the Waves of Life. Image copyright – Lata Subramanian



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