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Dealing with a crisis: ‘Talk the walk’ without chest-thumping

If each one of our companies could take care of their employees and the communities in which they live and operate, they could take that much burden off the state’s shoulders.

May 05, 2021 / 01:01 PM IST
Of the $40 million that Cognizant committed during the Chennai floods, $10 million was granted to assist the government and residents of Chennai and the remaining $30 million was grants and loans to assist with the immediate and longer-term recovery needs of employees and business partners. (Image: REUTERS/Pilar Olivares)

Of the $40 million that Cognizant committed during the Chennai floods, $10 million was granted to assist the government and residents of Chennai and the remaining $30 million was grants and loans to assist with the immediate and longer-term recovery needs of employees and business partners. (Image: REUTERS/Pilar Olivares)

When unprecedented floods devastated Chennai and its surroundings in 2015, my former employer Cognizant committed $40 million (Rs 260 crore) to support the relief and rehabilitation of the company’s employees and the larger society.

Soon after the decision was made, the bigger questions on our minds were: (1) should we just send an email to employees informing them that we cared and were by their side in their hour of need, and (2) should we go public with how genuinely we cared for employees and the communities within which we lived? More crucially, if we made it public, would it be seen as a sincere gesture or an opportunistic publicity exercise?

A few hours after this internal discussion, the global CEO of a large consulting firm proactively reached out to us to check if we needed any help. He volunteered to get one of their partners who had advised the African government on managing the Ebola crisis to share their learnings on how Cognizant could help its employees and the society at large through that crisis—to the extent possible.

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We posed the big question to her and, in no uncertain terms, she said, “Please be quite vocal about your support across all channels possible. This will sensitize and encourage others to do so. Even if you get one or two sarcastic comments, ignore and move on. Your larger purpose is to support your employees and the community. Stay true to that purpose, but be genuine.”

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She was absolutely right. By making a public announcement of our contribution, we got an opportunity to support some of the most deserving projects through Cognizant Foundation and Cognizant Outreach, including the rebuilding and refurbishing of more than 100 most badly affected schools.

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More than five years later, this weekend, I participated in a meeting of a leading chamber of commerce where industry captains discussed what the companies could individually and collectively do to address the Covid-19 crisis. Much of the discussion was around how quickly the companies could produce oxygen within the country and import oxygenators from outside, build makeshift hospitals, and help mobilize call center support through their employee base and address critical concerns. The companies collectively chalked out a plan to deal with these important requirements.

During this conversation, I shared my 2015 experience with the industry captains. After the call, I thought that merely sharing my thoughts with a small team was akin to sending an email to a limited audience of just a company’s employee base.

Sharing my experience more broadly with a larger audience would make more sense, I thought. That’s when I chanced upon a post by Borosil MD Shreevar Kheruka where he mourned the loss of four of their dedicated employees and made a commitment to paying two years’ salary to the families of employees lost to this dreadful virus and also supporting their children’s education up to graduation in India.

I bow before the management of this company for their wonderful gesture. It only reinforces that if each one of our companies could take care of their employees and the communities in which they live and operate, they could take that much burden off the state’s shoulders.

In fact, of the $40 million that Cognizant committed during the Chennai floods, $10 million was granted to assist the government and residents of Chennai and the remaining $30 million was grants and loans to assist with the immediate and longer-term recovery needs of employees and business partners. These loans went a long way in addressing the health, safety and housing needs of the employees and their families, as well as encouraging them to passionately contribute to the rebuilding of Chennai.

Equally important, I think, is that we share these good gestures more publicly so that others are inspired to emulate them in their own ways. It must, however, be made sure that this does not amount to chest-thumping and take away from the required sincerity of intent and will.

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R Ramkumar is former Chairman and Managing Director, Cognizant India
first published: May 5, 2021 01:00 pm

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