Book readings

The company we keep

Read Time:18 Minute

The book, The Company We Keep,  is a market research-based exploration of Indian corporate culture. It looks beyond the glamour and jargon of the business world to individual stories.

Ms. Divya Khanna, the author, in conversation with Mr. C Siva Kumar, Director, Roots Industries India Ltd., Mr. G Giridhara Gopal, Director & CEO, Addison & Co. Ltd., and Mr. Vinay Kamath, Senior Associate Editor, The Hindu BusinessLine.

Ms Divya Khanna: In 2017, I was burning out. I was overstretched and overworked. When you work too much, your work can suffer and that’s extremely demotivating. My health was suffering and I didn’t have much of a personal life. I took a break  and started focusing on my health. I started realizing that everything didn’t happen to me. Maybe I made some of those things happen.  We’re a very diverse country. Some of the unifying things are that as Indians, we feel we are very hardworking. We need a purpose. We need to be doing something. I felt I needed to get the answers to my problems because I didn’t want to make the same mistakes again. 

I started researching the corporate world and came out with my findings, essentially in four parts. The first part is about cultural conditioning. Not just the corporate world, every one of us has deep cultural conditioning. We all grow up with a certain competitiveness within us. We have a lot of status consciousness. The second part gets into the corporate lifestyle. What are the attractions of the corporate lifestyle, why do we want corporate careers and what are the compromises that we have to make to get our careers going? The third part looks at different stages of the corporate life cycle. There are freshers, people who are in their first job and people in the middle and senior management. I also studied the retired cohort. Today, health is such that people can retire but they’re still perfectly capable of contributing. My father has officially retired but he works three times harder than I do. In the fourth part, I sought expert opinions on topics such as neuroscience and its role in the corporate life,  leadership, HR aspects, collective collusion, workspace design, etc. 

Mr C Sivakumar: Not only companies, cricket teams have a culture. The IPL team, CSK has a culture and it explains how they handle every situation. The new generation earns a hefty salary and a lot of perks. People skip jobs once in two years and try to adjust to the culture without losing their job. The new culture, new salary, new ways of living and the lifestyle changes come with a challenge. By chasing only wealth, we soon realise that it’s a wrong desire and we are in the wrong path.

You have deadlines to meet and unrealistic targets set by your boss. There is a lot of pressure from your peers. You need to say ‘yes’ to your boss very often if you have to climb the ladder. You need that big salary as well as the negative ones that come up with it. You have to do a fine balancing act. For people like MS Dhoni, the CSK captain, every pressure is a pleasure.

HR has a big role to play. The HR job is just not about motivation, recruitment or retainment. It must bridge the gap between boss and the subordinates, understand the employees and give them breaks and the right experiences. It should give them a feeling that there is a social care for anyone working in the organization. HR has to lay stress on the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual well-being of the employees. 

Mr. Giridhara Gopal: I’ve been in the manufacturing sector for last 30 years. Stress affects every human being in this world, not just the people who are employed in corporates. Work has life in it and life has work in it. It is no more a work-life balance. One must know how to integrate work and life. Our parents never talked about work life balance or stress and they all lived happily. The generation next talks to us nothing other than the work-life balance. The status of an individual becomes his/her identity today. The path that you took to make the wealth is forgotten.  

Those days, the companies were valued based on what they were contributing to the society, to the country. Today, the identity of companies is based on  what revenue and profit they make, how much dividend they pay and what the stakeholder wants. In this situation, changing the corporate culture is a challenge. The individuals have to change to have a societal change. The entire mindset of the society should change.

Another challenge for companies is if they should make the shareholders happy or their employees happy? You have to take care of both. Eventually, the customers are the ones who make a company. The CEO must balance these needs.

Today, ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance norms) has become very important. It is no more the profits that you make. It is also an interesting revelation to know about neuroscience and its role in influencing and understanding the employees, especially the role of body chemicals like oxytocin, serotonin and dopamine.  

Mr. Vinay Kamath: All of us have worked in traditional companies and but increasingly, we now see now the gig economy where the employees relate to companies in a contractual role. What does that do to their attitude and their understanding of the company? How does the company deal with these people and try to develop a corporate culture?  

Ms Khanna: I have not researched the gig economy. But in the last few years, I have been part of the gig economy. I don’t know if it’s true for everybody but for me, wanting to be part of the gig economy was a reaction to the corporate culture that I couldn’t deal with. As a contract worker, I can say ‘no,’ much more easily, because there’s a contract that says what I will do and what I won’t do and how much I will be paid for it. When I was an employee, my contract didn’t say any such thing.  

The other part depends on HOW the company treats the contract workers. For example, in advertising, we had certain people, especially in the creative team, who were technically contract workers. They were on contract, so that they could be paid a higher salary. They functioned pretty much like regular employees of the company and were very much integrated. There are also cases where the contract workers don’t ever come into the office. They’re just a face, perhaps on a zoom conference. It depends on companies on how they’re treating the contract workers and how they’re integrating. It also depends on how much the worker wants to be part of the corporate culture.

Mr Kamath: What would be the company’s relationship with the person who does contract work? If they treat them as a regular employee, what happens to the dynamics between the contract worker and the rest of the employees? I’m sure companies are going to face this scenario increasingly.

Ms Khanna: That depends on the employer and their policy regarding contract workers. Why do they have contract workers in the first place? In the advertising example that I gave, the only reason those creative people were contract workers was that as an employee of the company, they could not be paid a higher salary. The company wanted to hold on to the creative talent and give them what they felt they deserved. On paper, they made them contract employees. So, you must know the reason for having a contract employee. Then, is it a short-term project? Is it something that you don’t have it in house?  It depends on a lot of factors.  

Mr Sivakumar: Today, every organisation has a set of people who are contracted and a set of people who are direct employees. I will answer this question from two parts—from my manufacturing experience and also as a retailer with Titan. Titan as a brand has taught us about a culture that they maintained within the organization. It was the first CEO Mr Xerxes Desai who paved the way for that culture. He said that, first, we need to provide service to a customer, whether he bought from a franchised outlet or a company outlet. His emphasis was on building a culture where all belong to a single family. In that culture, you can be frank enough and accept your mistakes.

Though we are franchisees, he made us travel across Europe, Australia, New Zealand and many places to understand the global trends, which he could have done only for the company employees.  That’s the importance he gave to contracted franchisees and it has made us to be in the front end of the brand to the customer. My own employee at the franchisee outlet will carry a Tanishq card and he won’t say I am contracted. We are a part Titan and there is no differentiation.  

From a manufacturing side, I do a lot of work for Leyland for tipper and haulage bodies, in Hosur. I have engaged a lot of contract people. Hosur is a place which is highly unionized. I have about 1000 people for over 30 years and there has not been a single strike, layoff, lockout, suspension or dismissal. We won the national award. Even during the Covid, we paid our contracted employees and made sure our north Indian workers stayed back, for which, we were featured in the newspaper. There is no difference that we have created between the contracted employee and our own employees. Education is one area that can transform their family. Even for a contracted employee, we’re looking at education to be provided in order that they grow in their life. In fact, we are tying up with some colleges to help them seek further education.  

Mr Kamath: The aspirations of the young people who join companies are quite different. When we were young, it was very important to earn a good salary, then to buy our first car and our first home. But I find these youngsters want to soak in experiences and not so much into buying or holding assets. They want to go on a holiday or take some courses. How can companies deal with aspirations of this kind? How does this impact a company’s culture?

Ms Khanna: I think that applies specifically to Gen Z. When we were young, there was no Ola or Uber. There was either public transport or you had to have your own car. Therefore, the car was a great aspiration. Today, you have a fantastic cab service.  You don’t have to worry about parking or if the road is good or bad, for you to drive. The context has changed. The right experience is very important to them.

The HR departments need to think about this change. Work is a very important part and I think every generation, including Gen Z, wants to feel that they’re making a contribution and that they are doing something worthy of vindicating for themselves. The social purpose behind what you do, the environmental issues like sustainability have now become important. It is not just about the absolute amount of money. Companies must create community outreach, so that, these people can be a part of something bigger than themselves. 

Mr Gopal: When we talk about the gender bias, we read about two or three things. We say that India’s GDP has not gone up over the years, because we haven’t used the potential of women, whereas China has used it. My point is India is not a monolithic country. We have different culture, different kinds of background- urban, rural- and a lot of value systems. There are certain things which are inevitable for women, even if they don’t wish to, like going on leave during maternity period. We say they have to be treated on par but when she’s on leave and somebody else is promoted, she feels humiliated. In the first 25 years, we train a girl saying that she has to compete with a boy to be a first rank holder and when they get married, we say that she has change her culture. There’s a complete conflict of interest, a conflict of ideas. How do we deal with this?

Ms Khanna: Going into my research, my hypothesis was that corporate culture is something separate and Indian culture is something separate. I was wrong. Our attitudes as a society get into the corporate culture. For us, patriarchy is a very benevolent protectionism. Sometimes that comes in our way. When you say women can have maternity leave, then men may complain. Either way, somebody is going to feel that it’s not fair. That creates extra competitiveness from a gender perspective in the company. I feel, today there are opportunities for fathers to take paternity leave. The opportunities and benefits should be equal to both genders.

A lot of young men who work in call centers in shifts complain that the girls have transportation but they don’t have and it’s not fair. They have a point.  I also feel that there is this flexibility stigma. When a woman is having a baby, she has no choice. Even if she doesn’t want to take maternity leave, she will have to. It’s not that she didn’t choose to have the child. She did choose to have the child and she knows that this is something that she has to do. For a father, it’s still a choice.

Not everybody can be like Virat Kohli who took leave for his baby and was celebrated on social media for it. There are men who would genuinely feel that, if they took paternity leave, it would affect their camaraderie with the team, if nothing else and that people would make fun of them. We have to encourage making it fair. If a woman cuts short her maternity leave and says, ‘my husband will take care of the baby and I want to go to work,’ that should be acceptable. That should be some choice that a young couple should have—both the man and the woman.

Mr Sivakumar: On the four pillars that the HR must take care in the employees—namely, physical, mental, emotional and spiritual sides, I’m sure a lot of organizations have worked to improve the employees’ morale and happiness. How can companies focus on the spiritual side?  

Ms Khanna: When I was doing my management trainee program, we had a course on transcendental meditation. The HR can organise celebration of festivals. They can have a competition for the best Christmas tree or something like that, which can bring the spiritual dimension in. Encourage people to be part of their communities in whatever religion or faith that they follow. The organization can’t take the complete responsibility for the spirituality like they do for the health. The individual has to be participative and willing.


How effective is grapevine communication in organisations? Bosses sometimes use this to their advantage. Won’t it impact the corporate culture?Mr Khanna: Grapevine communication is not within the management’s control. It is organic. You can do things that will stimulate that. If the company does that to promote the good things they did, so people should talk about that, it’s fine. But equally, if they do something bad, which they want to hide, they may not be able to do that. It’s very much like the word of mouth. You can treat it like PR and do little things that will generate more positive conversations. Mr Sivakumar mentioned that there was no strike or layoff in their organization. What is one major factor that contributed to that success? Did the organizational culture help to achieve this?MrSivakumar: Hosur has a very turbulent atmosphere. Every organization has different unions. Mine was making loss and no union wanted to enter a loss- making company. That is when I went into some research with a lot of workers. I visited their house. I had dinner with them and asked them, “Why is it that many of you resort to strike?” After going deep in the conversation, most of them said, “Sir, I am a welder. My son will become a welder and my grandson will become a welder. But in your case, you’re a managing director. Your son will become a super Managing Director and therefore there’s a divide. The only way for us to get what we want is to rebel. And that’s why we have the labour unions and the strikes.”

That brought deeper thoughts in me and I thought the only way to make my company different from the other companies is to look at education for the employees’ children. I brought about a new scheme called ‘GenNext,’ where the children were attached to people in Chennai—lawyers, doctors and sportsmen. The professionals were told to just guide the children and advised not to give them money but only their mind space.  Many of the children took the messages and started transforming. The workers said, “Look, my son is doing better,” or “My son is equal to my supervisor’s child / my manager’s child.” Then they found a big difference in the way our company was run. So, the one single factor for our success is education for employees’ children.

 Are there any limitations on relying on jugaad, which is typical of Indian culture?  Mr Khanna: In the short term, when you are worried and you need to do something to make it work, it’s okay to use jugaad. But it’s also better in the long term to think of a long-term solution. For example, you have  a small one-city startup and there is some transport problem on the ground. You solve it by doing jugaad with some local transporter. That is great. It will work as long as you are only limited to one place but when you scale it up nationally, you may not be able to use that technique in every city that you go to. You also do need the long-term thing.  

The other thing is to ensure that there is no ethical breach in your jugaad. If I’m driving late in the night and I’m desperate to get home, there’s a one-way street, which I take. As a woman driving alone in the night, I’m doing this jugaad just for my safety. But it is an ethical breach and I’m going to create a problem for somebody else. We have to be careful in how and when we use jugaad. We need better, long-lasting and sustainable solutions.

How can companies build a deep-rooted culture over a number of years that is different from foreign companies?

Mr Gopal: Most of the companies are valued by revenue and profits. But for us, profit is not the only reason for running the company. There are many other things that a company is supposed to contribute to the society. The company that I represent is 150-year-old. We have gone through a lot of ups and downs. But we have stuck to the culture that we wanted to bring in-that is being ethical and being honest to the society, employees and to every stakeholder. We haven’t made the best of the money that we can make in the industry. But we stick to the fundamentals and value systems that has been taught to us by the culture and systems of India. 

The HR people are getting younger. They might have come from great institutions but may lack expertise. Do you think that the companies getting younger are good for organizations?  Mr Kamath: I wrote an article in The BusinessLine captioned, “Indian CEOs hail from Youngistaan,” taking a line from Pepsi’s ad. In that, I did a dipstick study of Indian CEOs of professionally run companies and not family run business who had to anyway make their son or daughter a CEO at 27. I found these CEOs were in their 40s, unlike a generation earlier, where perhaps the CEOs were in their 50s. Some of the HR people I spoke to said that younger people are getting more varied experiences at a very young age. They come up with the skillsets that the contemporary jobs require and that’s why they’re coming into these senior roles at a very young age. I am not talking about startups, which anyway, will have young CEOs.  

Mr Gopal: I don’t think that the age alone is an issue. How many CEOs who are in their 60 react weirdly? How many of them are seasoned enough? 

How is the concept of carrot and stick applied in Indian corporate culture?  Ms Khanna: Carrot and stick is not only specific to Indian corporate culture. There a lot of things we do because we see a carrot at the end of it. And if the carrot is attractive enough, then we will endure some of the sticks. If I am on my weight loss journey, being healthy is a carrot for me. The stick would be the diet or the exercise I would have to do. But in the corporate context, many times I have been feeling that the stick is too much and you feel that the carrot is not worth it. It depends on your personal level of motivation and what motivates you.  

We are in an age of personalization and customization. As an employee, I may not really care with great policies, because these policies may not apply to me or I may not want them. I may need a specific flexibility or a specific kind of solution from my workstyle perspective. If the company is willing to make that, it can make me feel motivated and committed to the organization.