Shreevar Kheruka is the Managing Director of Borosil Ltd., based in Mumbai, India. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
I got a somber call from my head of human resources on the morning of April 15th. It was the height of the second wave of the pandemic in India and one of our employees, Santosh Chalke, had died from Covid-related complications. Santosh had been working for my organization, Borosil, for more than 15 years. His main job was in housekeeping and offering snack service to employees and visitors to the office. He had an ever-smiling and easy-going personality.
When I heard about his death, the emotions ran freely. I could not believe this had happened to a fit young man in his late 30’s. Moreover, the fact that he left behind a wife and a young child made the situation even more distressful. While we all knew the second wave of Covid was rampant in India, this loss hit home like a punch to the gut. I drifted sideways for a couple of days, not able to focus on any of the scheduled calls or video meetings.
The Covid outbreak in India would cause three more deaths within my company. Each of its victims left behind young families that were left both emotionally bereft and financially insecure.
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During this period, I noticed a dramatic drop in the morale and engagement of my colleagues. My team, normally very proactive and dynamic, was obviously impacted not just by these deaths, but also the environment of extreme fear and negativity. All chat groups were filled with stories of people needing ICU beds or medication or oxygen and dying from a lack of access to emergency care. India was in a terrifying downward spiral that seemed to be sucking our breaths away, both figuratively and literally.
Amongst other essential products, Borosil manufactures glass vials used for packaging the Covid vaccine, as well as Covid therapeutics. Though our offices had been shut for many weeks, shutting the plants and warehouses was simply not an option. As an organization, we had already taken all the recommended measures for safe working. Only essential staff were coming to the plants and warehouses with social distancing, sanitizing, masking and routine tests the norm.
I had conversations with colleagues and employees to see what was bothering them most. These talks revealed that the fear that was overwhelming them was not so much the fear of contracting Covid, or even death. Most of them were the sole breadwinners for their families, and they were fearful of the financial impact their deaths would have on the loved ones they left behind.
It was the fear of the future for their families that was dragging them down. This, I thought, was a problem I could help solve. I asked my HR head to see what other companies were doing for the Covid-related demises of their employees. He came back to me saying that while most companies had policies on Covid safety protocols, there were no policies on Covid deaths that he could find.
As head of our Borosil ‘family,’ I felt a responsibility to help assuage our employees’ Covid fears. They needed to feel that even if they were no longer with us, the organization would stand by their bereaved families, and ensure that they were not left adrift. So we announced a policy with two key points:
- We would pay two years of salary to the family of any employee who passed away due to Covid-19.
- We would pay for the education of all the children of the employee up to college graduation.
The rationale was clear — the guaranteed salary would give some time to help the family process their grief and reorient themselves. Moreover, the education for the children would help them to get jobs post-graduation and thus be able to support their families once again.
I announced this policy on a video town hall on April 29th and the response was overwhelming and immediate. I received hundreds of messages from our employees saying that they really appreciated this move by the organization.
One of my employees posted a ‘thank you’ message on Linkedin, which quickly went viral. My subsequent post on LinkedIn confirming the news seemed to touch a chord, with the reactions and comments pouring in by the thousands.
There was also a clear ‘shift’ in the atmosphere of fear that had descended upon my team. Morale improved almost immediately after the announcement, and I could sense that a massive weight had been lifted off my colleagues’ shoulders.
In the past couple of weeks, we have seen other organizations in India follow suit and announce similar policies for their workforces, including Larsen & Toubro, Tata Steel, Sun Pharmaceuticals, Bajaj Auto, Jindal Steel & Power and Mindfire. In fact, one headline even referred to the move as doing “a Borosil,” while another one claimed that Sun Pharma and Bajaj Auto, went “the Borosil way.”
Knowing that a single action has sparked off a chain reaction, impacting the lives and well-being of so many people around the country has been humbling and gratifying. But I also hope this brings my Borosil family even closer together.
I strongly believe that an organization which is able to create a sense of belonging and ownership within their employees will be able to recruit and retain top talent. I have personally experienced candidates who cite Borosil’s corporate culture as a reason they choose to work here over sometimes larger and better paying organizations. I do believe that motivated and loyal workforces that treat the organization like their own are the only sustainable competitive differentiation any company has over its competition. In times of crisis, employees value different things than when it is business as usual. It is the job of leadership to have the empathy and compassion to understand this and make appropriate decisions.
At Borosil, we have always believed that our real assets don’t reflect on our balance sheet. These assets, our people, need to be protected to the best of our ability. As the leader of the organization, I see it as my duty to do so. While none of what we have done can get any of our four dear employees back, I do believe our decision has given the strength to the others in my company to continue fighting and eventually beat this pandemic.
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