Pink Things to Good People


Published on 25th July, 2014, in The Economic Times

It’s like karma, is it not? You work hard, you are diligent, you do whatever you are told to do, you uphold the values of the company, display its prescribed behaviour, and yet, you get the pink slip for reasons you cannot make sense of or have control over. It is deemed necessarily strategic by the management gods to achieve organisational goals, and you are just collateral damage. We are conditioned to believe the mythology of ‘fairness and justice’ popularized in recent time, and yet despite the complex of well-meaning laws, bad things continue to happen to good people. Like Job in the Bible who keeps his faith despite numerous misfortunes, we are asked to trust the system, even when the system abandons us with surgical precision.

The pink slip is an Amercian term dated to the early decades of the 20th century. It probably referred to the salary slip, or a triplicate form, which was pink in colour, which was discretely placed along with the cash in his salary envelope. The pink slip became an ominous term as it could, and did, arrive unexpectedly in days before the union. In China, the term for abrupt termination is becoming a ‘stir fried squid’.

The pink slip has been institutionalised using ‘optimisation’ processes. Every year we are appraised and the system is used to determine the bottom 5% who need to be culled so that the organisational machinery functions to optimum capacity. The 5% can become 10% or even 20%, if the results are not good enough for the shareholder. We want lean machines, a pack of healthy but hungry high-performing wolves who will hunt for business.

And should you leave voluntarily, because you do not agree with the strategy or tactics of the company, of due to personal reasons, or because you are getting a better offer elsewhere, it is quite possible (as happening repeatedly in recent times with celebrated Indian firms) the owner / CEO / chairman / majority shareholder says: “He really did not add any value.”

What does it do the morale of those who stay behind, those who have not been given the pink slip, who are continuously wondering if they are good enough, and whether their good enough really matters to the powers that be, who are indifferent to individuals as they pursue the most important goal of shareholder value? The white-collar worker is not unionised to voice his rage and protest. And increasingly, with mechanisation and technology, there are fewer and fewer blue-collar workers and unions. So you have to accept your fate as Indians did long ago. Or the will of a biblical God, or ancient Mesopotamian God-king.

Modern management is designed to benefit shareholder, all talk of stakeholder notwithstanding. It functions via the impersonal institution. And the institution is worried about individuals as long as they contribute to its health. In the final analysis, the individual does not matter in the institutional scheme of things. In larger and larger companies, an individual employee, no matter what his grade is statistically insignificant. In fact, all efforts are made to de-risk the company from a particular individual by investing in impersonal processes and technology.

The fact is ultimately the organisational performance matters more than individual performance. If the company does not do well, it will cease to exist. To make it a better performer, it becomes necessary to cut the fat, to ‘right-size’ it. To be a better performer, it needs individuals to perform better. To perform better, knowing that a sword of pink slip is hanging over your head helps, for it brings out every survival instinct. You know the company cares for you only AFTER it cares for itself. If the company performs, and you contribute to it, you will survive, unless it decides to change its strategic direction (you never know!). But if the company does not perform, you will suffer, whether you have performed, or not performed, should you be on the wrong side of the organisation’s strategic blue print.