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Breaking the Taboo of Firing

A sign that Indian human resource executives have embraced global business practices is not their ability to recruit and train employees but their willingness to fire them.

August 17, 2007
A sign that Indian human resource executives have embraced global business practices is not their ability to recruit and train employees but their willingness to fire them.

    Until the outsourcing boom brought global business practices and a measure of economic stability to India, the phrase "You’re fired!" was rarely uttered on the subcontinent.

    With no social safety net and few job opportunities, any job was a good job in India before the current economic boom. Indian employers in turn felt obligated to carry the dead weight of a bad employee.

    This paternalism can be seen today in most family-owned Indian companies—even large ones like Bajaj and Hinduja, where firing someone is still unusual and jarring to the Indian psyche.

    "It took me great effort to convene the leadership to let go two people who were completely useless," says Arun Rao, vice president of human resources for software tester AppLabs, recalling the first time he fired an employee. "I had to actually convince the CEO."

    Eventually Rao succeeded in firing the two low-level employees, who were shocked at their dismissal.

    "In the Indian context, firing is very personal," says Uday Chander, director of the people function at Sierra Atlantic, which has offices in Hyderabad. Companies often act as extended families where people develop close ties.

    Because both AppLabs and Sierra Atlantic have their roots in the U.S., firing has been a practice they have more readily adopted. Both companies’ workforces work closely with those of their American clients, and those executives can select and reject which Indian employees work on their projects.

    Not that embracing the practice makes firing an employee any easier. It took Chander two attempts his first time.

    His colleague, Sravan Kumar, associate director of HR and training, says that to fire someone is to admit the company failed in some way.

    "If we hire this guy, it’s our responsibility to make sure he succeeds," Kumar says. "That’s the mentality."

Workforce Management, August 20, 2007, p. 26 -- Subscribe Now!