When I joined a large company as its newest personnel chief, the first thing I noticed was the strict class differentiation. Executives thought themselves vastly superior to the clerical staff, entitled not only to their privileges but also to treat the junior staff cavalierly. They spoke disrespectfully even to older clerks, who had served the company devotedly for many years, and did so in public.
I had told the Chairman, who had handpicked me, that I could be effective and produce results only if I had a free hand and was allowed to reshape staff matters. My first order of the day was to change the way we treated our 500 junior employees. In the first meeting with my six section heads, we reached an agreement to operate in a new way with subordinate staff. First, we would inform them of all major decisions, to make them knowledgeable and gain their support for our action. Second, we would consult them before taking such decisions, both to use their large pool of experience and to give them a sense of participation. We would do these with utmost respect.
Other senior executives I spoke with, over coffee and lunch, began to see the wisdom of such changes and fell in with my plan. With a sole exception. Verghese, the Publicity Manager believed in a more feudal style and insisted that he needed to “keep the clerks in their place.” I had already heard of his habit of talking rudely to his underlings, and some in my department took offense at his impertinent behavior when he spoke to them.
Brojo Babu, a tall elderly clerk who had worked in our department many years, was a meek bespectacled man, in charge of scheduling. He always spoke softly and humbly and did his job with care and caution. One afternoon he sought an interview and, after considerable hesitation, told me that Verghese had brought him nearly to tears by talking rudely to him in front of his young colleagues on two occasions. I told him that I could talk to Verghese, but it would be more effective if he himself told Verghese that impolite behavior was not acceptable.
Brojo Babu pondered this and told me that he was not sure he could do it. I then said that I was no longer advising him, but ordering him to tell Verghese, or anybody else for that matter, that he would not accept rudeness. Brojo Babu pondered some more, but still could not tell me that he could carry out that order. Flustered, I then asked him to open his notebook and write down a brief four-word message. I instructed him to memorize the message and deliver it anyone who dared speak discourteously to him.
A week later, Verghese came down to our department in a tearing hurry and wanted us to attend to some problem immediately. He chose to accost Brojo Babu, no doubt because he had found from past experience the modest clerk an easy person to bully. When he was told that he had to wait, shouted obstreperously that the clerk was worthless. Brojo Babu meekly said, “Excuse me,” and made a signal for Verghese to wait. Then he opened his notebook and haltingly read out the dictated message, “Please go to hell.”
The message was delivered in a large hall, in front of forty employees. Verghese could not believe his ears. He stood shellshocked for several seconds, and then retreated wordlessly to his office.
That afternoon I met with Verghese and the Chairman in the latter’s office at his request.
He asked me, “Did you intend to humiliate Verghese publicly?”
“Rather,” I said, “I wanted him to stop humiliating my staff members publicly. They had been insulted too many times for me not to seek some remedy.”
The discussion ended amicably.
I was pleased that Verghese was never again rude to Brojo Babu or anybody else in our department. Rumour had it that he had started talking differently to clerks in his own department, where the story had spread.
Spread it must have, for I noticed that when executives came to my department they behaved with an extra dose of courtesy. I was even more pleased that Brojo Babu became overnight a new person. No longer the meek, mealy-mouthed clerk, he walked with a new confidence, his head held high and a new spring to his step. He came to tell me privately that he did not disclose to his colleagues that I had dictated the message to him. They considered him a hero.
He added, “Never have I done anything like this in my entire life. I am a different man, sir.”
The writer is a Washington-based international development advisor and had worked with the World Bank. He can be reached at [email protected]