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A private security guard uses an infrared thermometer to measure the temperature of a man at the entrance of an office building, following an outbreak of the coronavirus disease, in New Delhi
Reuters/Adnan Abidi
Not in the pink of health.
CRISIS MISMANAGEMENT

Genpact’s response to coronavirus is a lesson in what not to do during a pandemic

Ananya Bhattacharya
By Ananya Bhattacharya

Tech reporter

At the beginning of March, Genpact recognised coronavirus as a risk to its India business. But for nearly three weeks after that, the company seems to have paid little heed to the health and wellbeing of its workforce in the country.

Even as other firms began adopting remote work policies in early March, India’s second-largest business process outsourcing (BPO) firm forced its employees to come to work, several people have alleged on Twitter.

“Genpact is included as a designated essential service and is fully compliant with all India government mandates,” the company told Quartz. “We provide critical support to industries such as medical, food supply, and banking—global businesses that are essential to keep people safe.”

IT & IT-enabled services are recommended—but not required—to encourage their staff to work from home. Industry body Nasscom, though, specified on March 20 that firms should move all assets immediately to enable employees to work from home and only have a handful of staff on-site.

As confirmed coronavirus cases in India climbed upwards of 500 and the government made lockdowns more stringent late last week, Genpact finally and fully woke up to work-from-home. However, this was too little too late for its 65,000-strong India workforce.

Bungled response

By early March, Nasscom was already convincing the government to enable work-from-home in the IT sector in light of the Covid-19 outbreak. Genpact CEO, Tiger Tyagarajan, himself tweeted backing Nasscom’s request.

Yet, the company did not brace for impact.

Until last week, superiors were being condescending about the provision, employees said. “My boss even told me that working from home was a gimmick to shirk work and people world over were promoting it so they can chill at home,” an employee from Gurugram said, requesting anonymity.

A WhatsApp screenshot and multiple other tweets allege a vice-president was “bribing” workers to come in, promising Rs1,000 ($13) per day, besides free food and tea.

Screenshot/Twitter
Luring employees with money and freebies.

Those who wanted to protect themselves from exposure to coronavirus were worried about being financially hit. A Genpact employee in Sitapura, Jaipur, was apparently asked to come to office “or else his leaves will be deducted,” his wife wrote on Twitter on March 23. “He doesn’t have leave balance which results in his salary deduction if he takes leave.” Another Twitter user also said a relative who works at Genpact Noida is bracing for a pay cut. A Gurugram employee said she was told she could take leave without pay if she wanted to practice social distancing, but the company would not give her access to work from home.

Genpact did not directly comment on these allegations.

“During this extraordinary and unprecedented time, Genpact remains focused on taking necessary actions for the safety of our people, while ensuring that the critical services for our clients continue to operate,” it said. “We will continue to adapt our approach as the situation evolves while keeping employee safety as our top concern.”

Regulations aside, this delay in action might hurt the company badly.

Firms like Genpact deal with large-scale and complex assignments and processes governed strictly by compliance and regulations. “Enabling such processes for work-from-home not only needs time and client approvals, but also significant investments,” Sanchit Vir Gogia, founder of advisory firm Greyhound Research, told Quartz.

At the same time, “in the current state of affairs, clients and other stakeholders will understand delays and other slips in delivery and business objectives must take a back seat,” Gogia added. “Important to remember, when it’s all over, current and future employees, vendors, and clients will measure these companies on the compassion they offered during such trying times.”

Too little too late

Last week, when the government began imposing lockdowns in some cities before announcing a nation-wide lockdown from today (March 25), the company said it will bring devices to its employees at their homes.

The ground reality, however, is different. An employee, seeking anonymity, told Quartz that the company’s staff across Jaipur, Noida, Gurugram, and Bengaluru have not yet received laptops.

Another Gurugram-based employee, not wishing to be identified, said his boss messaged the team on March  23 to come to office and take their devices home. By this time, all public transport was grounded and Uber and Ola halted services. Patrol cops were punishing people on the streets.

It is a logistical nightmare for the company now.

“Companies prepare even for earthquakes and tsunamis. For a pandemic, there was zero preparedness. Something like this has not hit in at least 50 years,” said independent HR consultant N Shivakumar. “The minute this happened, everyone hit the panic button and moved towards laptops. Second-hand rentals that typically cost about Rs3,000 per month were at Rs12,000 by March 16.”

Yet, forcing employees to commute amidst a deadly pandemic is not the solution. “The company will face the music when these employees come back to work,” he adds.

Some Genpact employees are so irked by the lack of preparedness as well as the company’s disregard for their health and wellness, sources say, that they’re considering suing it.

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