If you think that large and well-known organizations work well, you belong to the first category. If you believe they take care of their employees, you belong to the second. And if you imagine they serve society in any way, you are in the third category, hopelessly condemned to a diet of myths and fables. You are a mental midget, you will never grow up.
I started life by working for an European company in India, one of country’s largest corporations. Most seemed to think I had scratched the Aladdin’s lamp to have such a break, especially within a week of quitting the university. The common guess was that I had a godfather in the hallowed sanctum of the company. Or at least an uncle who might have split a scotch with a British bigwig in some elite club.
It wasn’t an unfair speculation. Most good ‘starter’ positions are preempted by people who have contacts. They have a cousin already working in the company who can pull strings. Or a business associate, say a supplier or a dealer, who can put the right word in someone’s ears. Or even a lowly clerk or secretary as a friend who will tenaciously pester a recruiter until an interview is granted to the favored job seeker. I was unusually lucky that the European company was hiring interns for the first time and the news of the golden portal hadn’t had time to get widely known. Even without a contact, I could edge in.
The bosses, however, had no idea what they needed or wanted, beyond ‘smart people.’ They had done no analysis, no homework; they had no profile of their ideal candidate. All they were ready to look for were some young people – all men, of course – who could write legibly, speak glibly and seem half-way plausible. I was a one-trick pony, who knew nothing of business, but could do those things. I passed easily.
I was lucky too that my first assignment was in a factory. A production shop, like a programming cell or a call center today, is a brutal place naked in its brutality, without the hypocrisy of a thin layer of courtesy and elegance that decks many main street offices. It lets you see the real nature of industry, the use of people like cogs in a machine. If a machine did not work well, the foreman would ask the worker to continue working until a repairman came, in spite of serious risks. The foreman did not want to lose production; the worker did not want to lose wages.
One interesting twist now is that chief executives are getting dumped almost as unceremoniously for flimsy reasons, though the blow is softened by golden parachutes amounting often to millions. The logic of dispensability has certainly gained a wider application.
My biggest lesson was also the most unexpected. I learned that, whatever else you might expect in industry, business just will not be businesslike. People take decisions not because they are the best decisions for business, most reasonable or most profitable. Rather, they take decisions that will please their boss. Or most impress their colleagues. Or seem good on the basis of some hunch, some half-baked projection or some fatuous notion imbibed from a half-witted superior or long-dead mentor. Business decisions are rooted in a hundred ridiculous things and rarely in objective, sustained analysis. Years ago, when I mentioned to a Finance Director that he could save a lot of time by delegating to a subordinate the chore of writing large checks, he innocently responded, “But I like writing those checks!” It gave him a gratifying sense of power.
Unnoticed by the managers, the workers had changed. When the factory had started, a vast number had joined as workers without completing high school. Now many of them were graduates. They were smarter, more self-confident, with a stronger self-image. They would not be cornered by a rude foreman or cowed by a conceited manager. They stood on their rights and made shrewder use of their union status. I struggled to change the air of confrontation, but it was an uphill battle to reconcile pigheaded managers mired in the past and blood-sensing union leaders flexing their new-found muscles.
I left the company after more than a decade of excitement and frustration, learning and discovery, sometimes unpleasant but always stimulating. It was forlorn news but no surprise when I learned a few years later that the company had folded.