Maybe stories are just data with a soul.
~Brene Brown
~Brene Brown

How progressive can we be?

A values driven, fairly large, employee centric company is faced with a tricky situation … one of its workman is affected with a disease the name of which is a taboo itself “AIDS” …. the company has to face various challenges in dealing with this … lower productivity and employee morale in the team ....uneasiness of co workers to share common space … labour union issues …. compliance with labour laws etc …. How does one handle this situation?

~ Harish Raichandani

The Cast :

Chander Jumani - President
Vinod Narayan    - Chief Plant Operations
Kundan Bagchi   - Head, Human Resource
Mahesh Prasad  - Sr.Mgr  (Manufacturing)
Suranjan Das     - Worker

The Company :

Vaibhav Auto Engineering Ltd. (VAEL)

The Company Profile :

VAEL, engaged in manufacture of Auto Components, is a part of Calcutta based Vaibhav Group of companies.  The Company employing 475 employees posted net profit of Rs.6 crores on Rs.170 crore turnover during 1996-97.  The thirty year old Vaibhav group has always attempted and quite successfully projected itself as a progressive employer.  Barring a brief 4 year period of industrial unrest (during the TU Militancy of early 70s in West Bengal), the relationship between management and employees has been quite good.

A Values driven Company, the Vaibhav Auto has always displayed high concern & sensitivity to its employees' needs.  For instance, when an employee died in a road accident few years ago, the founder chairman not only offered generous compensation to his family but also provided all employees at Vaibhav Accident Insurance coverage of Rs.6 lakhs each and group life insurance cover of Rs.2 lakhs.  Several other schemes such as Sick Leave Bank, Interest-free Loans - house building,  vehicle purchase (introduced not for retaining managers/ high talent employees but as a measure to enhance employee prosperity) etc. were introduced proactively by management.  Very innovative profit-sharing Incentive schemes have helped the management in heightening Performance Orientation and Employee Morale. Management at Vaibhav while displaying soft & caring heart for employee has also been very firm and has always adopted non-negotiable stance on matters concerning employee discipline/ performance

The Case :

Event I

Suranjan Das is a semi-skilled workman employed in Machine shop at VAEL.  Though,  not one of those star performers but his hard work is certainly acknowledged by his peers and superiors.  Two months back, Suranjan Das stopped coming for work.  Mahesh Prasad, Sr. Manager - Mfg, (known for his friendly and cordial relations with his sub-ordinates) before deciding to initiate Disciplinary Action visited Suranjan Das at his residence.  There, Mahesh Prasad discovered that Suranjan was suffering from AIDS (Acquired Immuno Deficiency Syndrome).  Being aware of the stigma attached with AIDS patients Mahesh Prasad did not discuss this issue with anybody.

Two weeks later, Suranjan Das came for work with a 'Medical Fit Certificate' to join his duties.  Mahesh Prasad did not know how to deal with the situation.  He advised Suranjan to come after a week.

Event II

Two days later Chander Jumani, President, VAEL was holding his weekly review meeting.  Vinod Narayan, Chief (Plant operations), Kundan Bagchi, Head (HR) and Mahesh Prasad were participating in this meeting.  Mahesh briefed the house about the AIDS episode.  He also said, "Apparently some employee union members and others have also come to know about the incident.  Also, I have a feeling that some disgruntled union members would attempt to derive mileage from the situation".  The following discussion took place.

Kundan Bagchi : "Currently we are enjoying excellent relationship with workmen.  The order book  position (company's order book is full for next 6 months and credibility is at peak) is very good.  At such a time it would be worthwhile to avoid any trouble.  It should also be kept in mind that while our relationship with union is extremely good, intra-union rivalry is very high because two strong factions exist which enjoy good support from different employees.  It is virtually neck to neck fight between the two factions for supremacy.  Considering aforesaid scenario I suggest we offer some compensation to Suranjan Das and obtain his resignation.  It may not be morally correct/ legally right to press Suranjan Das to submit his resignation.  However, it would be worthwhile to avoid this trouble".

Vinod Narayan : "I agree we would not like to have any trouble with the unions or workmen at this point of time.  However, the compensation offered to Suranjan Das may set a very  bad precedent.  Who knows how many more AIDS cases exist ?  I for one am in favour of removing Suranjan Das from the services of the company, but any generous compensation, other than one prescribed by the law should not be extended to Suranjan Das".

Kundan Bagchi : "But on what pretext do we single out Suranjan Das and retrench him from services?  Just by being potential AIDS carrier one cannot be disqualified from being in employment. Therefore, strictly speaking to tackle it under the Labour Laws context it would be very tricky".

Chander Jumani :  "I would like all of yours attention to the fact that AIDS is no more a mysterious disease.  We know how it spreads.  It would not spread just by working together in a factory.  Further in our country, as it is, the social stigma is attached to an AIDS patient.  Being a progressive employer we cannot increase the agony/ social stigma for an individual.  I don't think we should either retrench the concerned workmen or seek his resignation in lieu of compensation.  We can take initiative and educate our workmen about AIDS emphasising that it doesn't spread due to work contacts.  This, of course is my initial view point,  since I am scheduled to have an important meeting with our bankers, you people carry on with this discussion, we will review the situation after a while".

Event III

During the following week, slowly word spread.  Suranjan Das is an AIDS patient became common knowledge.  Four days after the above noted meeting, as Suranjan Das entered canteen and settled down on a table, the workmen who were seated on that table got up and left their plates in the wash basin (They would not like to have their food on the same table where Suranjan Das sits). This incident was brought to Kundan Bagchi's notice.  Following morning, Kundan Bagchi called Suranjan Das to his office.  The moment Suranjan Das entered Kundan Bagchi's office 5 members of his staff (belonging to HR Department) left the room.  One of them even kept her kerchief on the nose, at the sight of Suranjan Das.  Kundan Bagchi enquired about Suranjan Das's health and family matters etc. and politely advised him not to enter the canteen again.  He requested him to bring his own food/ snacks and have it outside in the lawns.

Event IV

The work group with which Suranjan Das was working, showed drop in its productivity and morale levels.  The Section Incharge isolated Suranjan Das and stopped allotting any group work to Suranjan Das; he was advised to carry out a few independent activities only.  Kundan Bagchi was aware of this fact. 

Event V

The following day a union office bearer came to Kundan Bagchi and raised the issue of Suranjan Das.  The office bearer remarked "Sir, how long are you going to keep Suranjan Das in this factory.  The workmen are resenting his presence in the factory.  We understand you have stopped him from going to canteen but will you also stop him from using the common drinking water tap, the toilets etc.  I am aware that you can explain it scientifically that AIDS does not spread like this.  But are you sure all the workmen will take it in stride?  or will you be willing to come forward and set an example by sharing a meal with him publicly?  Even when you do set an example like this I am not sure whether workmen will feel comfortable in this environment.  Please take some decision whereby workmen morale is not affected."

Event VI

The following morning Kundan Bagchi was seated in the office of Chander Jumani.  He narrated all the above events to Chander Jumani.  He also explained to Chander Jumani that, Kundan Bagchi himself still favoured the option of separating Suranjan Das by paying him a generous compensation.  

The dilemma for Chander Jumani was whether to give precedence to Suranjan's interests or pay attention to the sentiments of other workmen.  He was not able to decide.  Can you help him ?

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This case study published in ISABS journal  'Here & Now' 2006 issue.