At the height of the economic crisis in India in the early 1990s, I left the country to join a bank in Dubai. Early on, I found out how the personnel (now called human resources-HR) department works there.
HR departments in banks in the Middle East were headed by nationals, ostensibly to ensure that the nationals in the staff were looked after, trained well, and groomed to take over responsible positions replacing expatriates. Some of the HR heads had their own individual operating styles.
I got the first taste of this even before I joined the bank. My appointment letter said that my designation would be 'manager credit, branch control'.
Along with my acceptance, I wrote to the HR head asking what the branch control department did.
Back came the answer, “Branch control controls branches”.
To be fair, this was the perfect parliamentary answer – it was brief, it was truthful, and did not tell me anything that was not self-evident!
Upon arrival at the bank’s head office on my first day, I reported to the HR head. He took me to my boss, introduced me and left. My boss exchanged some pleasantries and took me to another cabin where an elderly gentleman, Mr Khan, was sitting behind a large desk covered with thick files.
I was quite mystified. Neither the HR head nor my boss had told me what I was supposed to do, and how Mr Khan fitted into my future.
Mr Khan was equally mystified.
After the boss left, he asked me what I was going to do in the bank.
“I don’t really know,” I replied. “My appointment letter says my designation is 'manager credit, branch control' but I don’t know what that means.”
Mr Khan was visibly shocked. He tried to say something, nearly choked, got up with a muttered 'excuse me' and left the cabin. I sat there, even more mystified.
After 15 minutes, Mr Khan returned, looking dejected and pale. He slumped heavily in his chair, looked at me and said “I am sorry, I know it is not your fault, but I was not expecting this.”
He went on to explain, “I am manager credit, branch control. It seems you are my replacement.”
It was my turn to be shocked. Didn’t the poor chap know he was getting fired?
It turned out he hadn’t been told a word about the plan to hire someone in his place so that he could be fired. Of course, both my boss and the HR head knew about this plan and, in fact had carried it out, but neither wanted to face the unpleasantness of telling poor Mr Khan.
Within an hour of joining my new job I had received the grim news of how HR operated in the Middle East.
The “changed my mind” HR Boss
A few months after joining, I happened to meet Smitha, who had been a secretary in the bank, where I used to work. After getting married, she had come to the Middle East and taken up a job as a secretary in a trading company.
She told me that the hours were very long, the pay was meagre, and the people were unpleasant, but she needed the job. She asked me if I could help her find a better job somewhere else.
Smitha had been a very reliable and competent secretary in my previous bank. I wanted to help her. I gave her CV to the recruitment officer in HR and put in a word for her.
Quite soon, good news arrived. Smitha was called for an interview, selected and told to come to the bank after two days to collect her appointment letter.
A couple of mornings later, I returned to my office after attending a meeting and was told by my secretary that Smitha had collected her appointment letter and had come to thank me but, after waiting for some time, she had to return to her workplace to hand in her resignation.
I called Smitha and congratulated her on her new job.
“What job?” she said in a heavy voice.
“What do you mean? You got your appointment letter, didn’t you?” I asked.
It turned out that upon returning to her office she had found frantic messages from our HR department asking her to call back immediately, before doing anything else. She had done so, only to be told that the HR head had changed his mind, and her appointment had been cancelled.
Fickleness, thy name is HR!
Even more bizarre is this story about the HR head changing his mind.
An officer named Aveek Bose had recently lost his job at my earlier bank through an unfortunate incident, which was no fault of his. This young chap had an excellent reputation and many of his colleagues were sympathetic towards him.
One such person contacted me and asked if I could help Aveek get a job in my bank. After the Smitha incident, I was wary of getting anyone else into a similar mess; but, since Aveek was jobless anyway, I decided to give it a shot.
I went to the HR head, gave him Aveek’s CV and explained his entire background, emphasising that he was an excellent operations officer. The HR head nodded and said he would look into it.
I added that Aveek would be happy to come over from India at his own expense and stay with a friend, and that the bank didn’t have to spend anything on him. All he wanted was one interview.
A little later, I heard that Aveek was being called for an interview for the position of operations manager at a medium-sized branch. The bank was going to pay his airfare and put him up at a hotel.
Great, I thought!
Aveek arrived, stayed for a week, met a dozen people, was commented upon favourably by each and every one of them, and went back a happy man with a promise of an appointment letter to follow very shortly.
Two days later, I heard that Aveek was not being hired because he did not know Arabic!
It does not take rocket science to figure out that a man who has spent all his life in Kolkata will not know Arabic. But…………
Two months passed and Aveek was still jobless and deeply miserable.
Suddenly, the HR head summoned me and asked me for Aveek’s phone number. Quite mystified, I fished it out and gave it to him.
Things moved at lightning speed thereafter. An appointment letter and a plane ticket were couriered to him with a fervent plea to join immediately. Aveek arrived in two days’ time and started work. He retired 27 years later as the operations head of the entire bank.
Sometimes, a change of mind can be for the better, too.
(Deserting engineering after a year in a factory, Amitabha Banerjee did an MBA in the US and returned to India. Choosing work-to-live over live-to-work, he joined banking and worked for various banks in India and the Middle East. Post-retirement, he returned to his hometown Kolkata and is now spending his golden years travelling the world (until Covid, that is), playing bridge, befriending Netflix & Prime Video and writing in his wife’s travel blog.)