Wider angle by S. Mitra Kalita
Growing up in the US, my father’s office Christmas party was as much a part of our family tradition as the tree and presents. Every December, we took the train into New York City to admire lights and toy trains in the company’s lobby. Cartoons played for hours in the auditorium. Free lunch in the canteen was much nicer than McDonald’s to us three kids. Then came visits with Santa Claus and gifts, things such as binoculars and craft sets.
We would stop by my father’s office and I’d staple everything I possibly could, while my brothers flung rubber bands. I remember feeling proud that my dad had an office, and somehow I realized through those visits that this company made him the man he was and, in many ways, the comfortable family we were. Around the holidays, as teachers and television asked children to think of those less fortunate, my gratitude strengthened.
Long ago, in my teenage years when such affairs began losing their lustre anyway, the parties suddenly stopped. Cost-cutting, my father said.
The employer happened to be Citibank.
Chances are, readers of this newspaper have followed the departure of Citi chief executive Charles Prince this week and the turmoil at the company and, more generally, in financial services over losses related to subprime lending. Already, compensation experts are sending Wall Street a warning that bonuses might remain flat or fall this year—for the first time in five years.
In my new home that happens to be my father’s old, on this last day of business in the traditional Hindu calender, as we honour our staff with gifts and gratitude, as we pray for more prosperity often on the backs of these same workers, I remember the holiday parties as the earliest lesson I received about employer obligation to families. I remember loyalty that was a two-way street—and how that spilled over into consumer habits as we grew up. I’ll ponder how it is that Indian firms can hang on to the ethos even as loyalties change and we brace ourselves for the cold that’s been promised as the US sneezes.
This past year has been rocky for Citi, its thousands of laid-off employees and investors like me (disclosure: I dumped babysitting earnings into the stock in 1990 and my father has always managed it for me).
My life has been marked by a certain loyalty to the bank, from those parties to my first investments to my first mortgage. As Citi grew and shrunk, merged and laid off, I joined frustrated consumers in wondering if the right hand talked to the left.
Prince’s letter of resignation links the need to unite strategy in and out of the workplace: “Our strategy to operate as a real company—not a collection of acquired businesses—with a focus on our infrastructure, our clients, and a strong unified brand and employee culture—is the right one,” he wrote. “But... the rating agencies have recently downgraded significantly… I am responsible for the conduct of our businesses.”
As I read those words, I thought of the company’s role in the life of an immigrant mining engineer in 1972 with no finance background—and the ripple effect that support had on many more. Citi hired my father through a temporary staffing agency, liked him enough to give full-time work and then paid for his MBA. He retired after more than 30 years at the bank in various roles, finally as a vice-president.
My two homes this week—the US and India—are experiencing a dichotomy that makes me cling even harder to my belief that companies employ whole families, not individuals. And that it’s no coincidence that the greatest places to work better innovate and create the best choices for consumers.
Somehow over the last few decades, this sentiment in the US has been lost with the passage of time, especially as we measure time with monthly targets, quarterly earnings and fiscal calendars. Understandable, but also noteworthy is the fact that workers who stick around are motivated by more than money.
That’s why my favourite Diwali mornings in India have been spent in factories and workplaces where the big bosses bless more than their books—employees and their families.
Industry body Assocham, or the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India, says corporate India’s spending on Diwali gifts likely increased by 48% to Rs2,000 crore compared with Rs1,350 last year. I’d like to think it’s about more than the gift, but about the duty we all have towards one another. And to allay some of the cold that India might catch, we must figure out ways beyond money and gifts to empower and appreciate.
As I bought gifts this week for the staff at home and my colleagues at work, my shopping companion said to me, “This is all so clichéd. Do these things really come from the heart?”
To keep the good times rolling, they must.