The Bread Earner: A Cautionary HR Tale

Her 10-year old was bent over his school books, halfheartedly completing his homework. The light from the iPad screen illuminated his younger brother’s face, spotlighting his mirth as he watched his favourite YouTube video. He had been granted screen time to prevent him from disturbing his older sibling. Keeping a watchful eye on both her children, she went about the task of preparing dinner. As she cut the vegetables, her mind dwelt on her husband.

He had gone for what seemed like his 100th job interview. She prayed that this would be the day when he would come home with the good news that he had bagged the job. A great deal was riding on it. After all, he was the primary bread earner. Without the income he brought in, they would not be able to manage their household expenses, let alone pay the EMIs (Equated Monthly Installments) of the loans they had taken on.

She cut the vegetables in front of her mechanically, even as she helplessly gave into the dark clouds gathering force in her mind. Lost in that dark abyss, she was totally unaware that her elder child was casting anxious glances her way. He had been wondering for sometime now as to why his father had stopped going to work. He had even asked the question only to be told that his father was on vacation just like he had school holidays. He accepted the answer but didn’t believe it. A sensitive child, he could feel the tension in the house.

Finally sensing her child’s gaze on her, she looked at him and absent mindedly admonished him, “Finish your homework. Daddy will be home soon.”

Parental duty done, she turned inward again, trying to understand the reasons for their situation. To date, she had been unable to fully comprehend it. After all, her husband had just been promoted last year. If his company thought he was good enough to take on more responsibilities, then why had he been let go now? True, his company was closing down several lines of business and her husband was not alone in being let go. Still, after so many years of service, why did the company just apply a hatchet blindly across swathes of workers with no thought or heed to separating the deserving for other roles. Surely, the powers that be had long seen this coming?

Her husband had tried explaining to her that the company could not make any exceptions because it would give rise to too many others laying claim on the ‘deserving’ title. Really, it was no different from the impartial parenting they practiced with their sons.

She saw merit in that viewpoint. Still…she believed the company could have done more. It was beyond unacceptable that her husband had not even been given the courtesy of a one-on-one explanation. All he got was an impersonal email terminating his services. The mail took care alright! It took a great deal of care in safeguarding the company’s interests.

Her thoughts stalled at this point as she sat up straight and indignantly thought, “Why do they call the function Human Resources? They should call a spade a spade and outright label it as Management Caretakers.

“Yes, that’s what they are. Management Caretakers, “ her thoughts continued in that vein.  “After all, from what my husband has told me with every increment letter, the focus is always on keeping the headcount and wage bill as low as possible. Oh, they pay attention to employee welfare alright. Or rather, their idea of employee welfare is limited to offering family medical coverage and organizing an annual employee party.”

That last thought startled her out of her reverie, replaced by, “My God, we are no longer covered for medical insurance.”

She sighed. One more expense they would have to find money for.

As she sat there mentally juggling their expenses, she began praying that at least today the interviewer would see her husband’s capabilities, sincerity and hunger to prove himself in another industry. The last particularly was important because the BIG reason for her husband being let go was that the sector he was working in was in its sunset phase. His managerial experience was easily leveraged to other industries but the good folk in Human Resources (HR) rarely went beyond the myopic view that he had no experience in their industry.

Indignant again, she thought, “What is it with these HR people? Aren’t they supposed to look for talent and a good attitude first and foremost? How long does it take for a committed worker and learner to come to grips with a different product and industry operations? Plus, why can’t they see that a worker from another industry can bring in fresh perspectives and add value?”

She had just begun to work up a good steam when the doorbell rang. Her younger son ran to open it, squealing, “Daddy.”

The tall figure in the doorway stooped down and scooped up his youngest, throwing him in the air.

She looked at his face.

He shook his head.

Author’s Note:

I have always believed that the primary Corporate Social Responsibility of businesses is to generate and safeguard jobs in the interests of social wellbeing. This responsibility is important from a sheer business perspective as well because without jobs, consumer markets will dry up. I have written on this subject before in Redefining Corporate Social Responsibility, Red-faced over a pink slip and The Robotics Emperor. 

In this post, I have approached the subject from another angle – that of the importance of a job to a family’s material and psychological wellbeing. I have written this story in the hope that it will be read by HR professionals widely, sensitizing them to using their power with more compassion. One may not be able to offer a job to every applicant. But surely, their emails and calls can be handled with more courtesy and where possible, good counsel and a helping hand.  HR professionals have power, which should not be used to douse hope and a feeling of hopelessness.

Two last points. I must apologize to the few HR professionals out there who must surely be committed to practicing their discipline the way it should be. I must also state that I fully recognize that HR is severely limited by Management policy. In other words, HR people are, at the end of the day, carrying out the task mandated by top management. All I ask is that they do so with more sensitivity. I am afraid that I see the last sorely missing these days.



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