Yes, there are always two choices when the boss asks you to do something illegal, unethical, or plain wrong.
You can plead, “Naukri ka sawaal hai,” and agree, or you can refuse, and pay the price for it.
When you choose, you will never know exactly how high the price will be. If you are lucky, it could be small or even inconsequential. If not, well... depends on your luck.
Bala was a management trainee in my first bank, a few years junior to me. He was a very straightforward sort of chap, Tam Brahm (of course), IIT/IIM, studious, religious, vegetarian, teetotaler—the whole nine yards. His hardware (brain power) was unquestionably AAA+++, but his software, i.e., people skills, was... hmmm. Everyone, even the bosses, was a little bit in awe of him, but people avoided having to deal with him.
Bala had just crossed the rigorous journey of junior officer-ship and earned his first promotion which entitled him to a company flat and car. Normally, this grade would entail being in charge of a sizeable team of people, but the powers that be decided to wait until age mellowed him a little bit before he had his own team to lead. Hence, he was put in a newly created back-office job—credit manager, CEO’s office.
Our bank’s business was expanding rapidly which meant that the credit proposals that needed GHO approval had increased from a trickle a few years ago to a near deluge. Every one of these needed the CEO’s sign-off before it was sent to GHO. The CEO was getting fed up with reading so many loan proposals every day and demanded that someone else be tasked to go through them before he himself signed.
Bala was the perfect fit. He would devour the proposals at lightning speed, raise queries, get them resolved, design caveats or conditions for approval, etc., etc., and get the CEO’s sign-off – all within 24 hours.
Things were running smoothly until, one dreadful day, the VeriLon proposal arrived at Bala’s desk.
VeriLon was our bank’s prime customer, at par with Glaxo, Siemens, CIPLA, and TVS. It was the first of the synthetic fibre superstars in the Indian market. We had done its first public issue a few years ago amid much fanfare.
The latest loan proposal was for a general increase in facilities, a precursor to a forthcoming second public issue which our bank was keen to manage. The corporate banking unit had prepared the proposal, plus it carried strong support from the merchant banking unit which was keen to cement our relationship with VeriLon because of the chunky underwriting fees and lead manager fees which the public issue would generate.
Approval for the current proposal was assumed to be a mere formality, until Bala put a spanner in the works.
He refused to recommend it for the CEO’s sign-off without which it could not go to GHO for final approval.
When asked to explain, Bala circulated a terse one-page memo to the shocked coteries in corporate banking and merchant banking, enumerating the fault lines and the tell-tale signs of deep trouble hiding in the detailed financial statements. VeriLon was heading for trouble, he averred, big trouble, and we should cut down our exposure, not increase it.
There was general ‘alarm and despondency’.
How could this be happening? VeriLon, of all the names?? And who is this little twit, Bala? What does he know about banking? See what you got when you bring in these IIM types to do banking!!!
The general consensus was – Bala was a menace. He had to be brought in line.
But Bala simply wouldn’t toe the line. He refused to recommend it.
Our venerable personnel manager, an old-timer who had risen through the ranks, found a solution.
He took Bala aside and offered him a deal:
- Either, withdraw your objections and recommend the proposal,
- Or, accept a transfer to Vizag as operations head, a post that was one grade lower.
Without hesitation, Bala went off to Vizag the next day. Of course, he gave up the bank flat and car, plus all the other perks, but he didn’t care.
Cut to the end...
The proposal was approved, as was our lead manager role in the public issue. But all didn’t go well in the years to come.
Within four years, VeriLon went bust—for reasons I won’t get into—and our bank lost a pile of money. The warning signals that Bala had spotted were indeed true.
Bala survived his term in purgatory at Vizag, and returned to acceptance within the bank, albeit having lost three years’ seniority. His reputation had been firmly established, but he never really did fit in. A few years later, he quit and left.
Yes, Bala did pay the price, willingly, and survived.
But this story is not meant to demonstrate that there is no price to be paid for subservience to the bosses.
I will try to illustrate this statement with another story – next time.
(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, playing bridge, befriending Netflix & Prime Video and writing in his wife’s travel blog.)