An Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) graduate, a communications professional and an engineering graduate went through phases of self-doubt and despondency after they were laid off from their respective jobs at different times before and after the 2008 global recession. However, instead of wallowing in self-pity, they honed their skills and eventually found newer callings. Several others who went through a similar ordeal now look back at that time as a turning point in their lives. Many got lucrative jobs later while some others turned entrepreneurs. They realised the job losses were not a reflection of their professional skills, but a result of prevailing circumstances.
The coronavirus outbreak is proving to be a similar test for employees across industries. The unemployment rate in India zoomed to 26 percent in the third week of April compared to 7-8 percent in the first week of March, according to the Centre for Monitoring India Economy. After the nationwide lockdown was announced, the rate had spiralled to about 24 percent by end of March.
Recruitment consultant Randstad India estimates that about 70 percent of the workforce in travel and tourism could lose their jobs because of Covid-19. Other sectors that have been hard hit because of the pandemic include manufacturing, and auto and retail, which have already begun downsizing. More layoffs could be expected in the coming months, across industries. However, experts say if employees get the pink slip, future employers will understand that this is a result of external factors, and not necessarily their performance. In fact, the silver lining is that sectors such as health care, pharmaceuticals, ecommerce and e-learning, for instance, are expected to see more recruitment despite the economic repercussions of coronavirus.
“We’re looking to on-board more than 1,000 teachers immediately apart from 200-plus employees each month for functions like recruitment, software development and engineering,” says Sini George, HR head at coding education platform White Hat Jr—targeted at children—which has seen a surge in student enrolments since the lockdown.
“There’s a real opportunity for companies looking to come to India post the crisis because of the talent that’s now available,” says Paul Dupuis, Randstad India’s MD & CEO. “In the bounce back, we’ll see a lot of jobs being created; manufacturing companies from Japan in sectors such as auto, steel and textiles are now looking at India keenly, as are Korean companies that want to move out of China.”
While the light at the end of the tunnel may seem far, one could emerge stronger if one keeps some key lessons in mind despite the testing times. Five people who were laid off in the past for no fault of theirs tell Forbes India that it was, in many ways, a blessing in disguise in the long run.
Nisha Khetan with a senior colleague at the bank in 2006 where she worked, an open ‘no-cubicle’ office that made her feel as if she were in a glass bowl. Today, Nisha (left) runs a communication company with a partner, knowing ‘sky is the limit’
‘It was the push I needed’
Communications professional Nisha Khetan was working at investment bank DSP Merrill Lynch and expecting her first child when the financial meltdown of 2008 hit. This was her fourth corporate job in an 11-year work experience. “The first few years there were good, but after the meltdown, the company went into cost-saving mode and slashed marketing budgets,” says Khetan, who was part of a two-member team. “Although the first set of layoffs started, there were laws around letting employees go while they were pregnant, so I stayed on.”
However, three days before Khetan was scheduled to rejoin work after her maternity leave, in June 2009, the company asked her to either resign or take a severance offer. She opted for the latter. “Of course, it was a shock. I had it all planned… my mother-in-law was coming to stay with us to help with the baby,” she says. “It took a few weeks for me to get out of this mode after which I decided I didn’t want to go back to a corporate job.”
Along with an ex-colleague from ICICI Bank, Khetan started a communications firm called Cubic Communication in 2011, and turned entrepreneur at 41. “Even though we had a tremendous network between us, it took us six months to land our first client, Brickwork Ratings,” she recalls. “Our next big client, Seed Fund, took us to the startup space, which has worked out well for us. Not too many players were in this space in 2011.”
There has been no looking back since. The firm did hit a dip during demonetisation in 2016 when some clients had to fold up. “From six to seven clients, we were down to three,” says Khetan. “That was also when I had my second child, so it took us some time to push ourselves back into the mainstream. But we were soon able to transform ourselves from just a media role to handling the entire communications for a client, including social media, creating videos and so on. Now, we have a battery of fintech clients.”
Getting laid off, adds Khetan, was the push she needed to wriggle out of corporate culture and politics. “It was a blessing in disguise,” she says. “The only advice I have for people who are being laid off right now is to remember that this is likely a factor of external circumstances. I never doubted my own performance or ability. I truly believe that if you put the effort in the right direction, it will lead you to where you need to be.”
At one point, IIT graduate Shrikant Singh struggled to afford the AC bus fare in Bengaluru. But things changed. While in 2009 he took a bike trip to Wayanad with his MuSigma colleagues, his recent expedition to Antarctica is a further reflection of his success at work and in life
‘You can either cry or motivate yourself’
Shrikant Singh graduated from IIT-Kharagpur in 2009, but did not have a job in hand. Though he had received a plum offer via campus placement, it did not materialise as the world economy had plummeted.
After about two months of job hunting, Singh got a job with General Electric’s plastics division in Bengaluru at a salary of Rs 10,000 a month, an amount that barely covered his rent. His woes did not end there. The division was acquired by a Saudi company which started laying off all Indian employees except scientists and those with PhDs. Singh decided to resign while the rest of the team got pink slips. For almost seven months, he was depressed. The only thing that kept him going was the advice of his college seniors: ‘Ten years down the line, no one will remember which company fired you’.
“I knew I had to let go of my ego when I couldn’t even afford an AC bus ticket to get around the city,” says Singh, who realised that an IIT degree was not a ticket to success and that he needed to learn new skills. He eventually bought a second-hand motorbike. “It forced my brazen arrogance into humility,” he says.
With a fresh perspective, Singh aced a walk-in interview at data analytics company Mu Sigma despite not having a formal background in the field. After a three-and-a-half-year stint at the firm, he pursued his MBA at the Indian School of Business. A campus placement took him to Amazon in May 2014 and he has been a part of the Amazon ecosystem since then.
“You may have to take a pay cut after you’ve been laid off if market conditions are such,” he says. “But remember this is not the last job offer you will ever get. Be humble and earnest… you never know where you will end up. The choice is yours: You can either cry endlessly over losing a job or use it as a weapon to motivate yourself.”
Friends helped Lakshmi Ananthamurthy—then in a tech job in the US—bear the brunt of the dotcom bubble burst in 2001. Soldiering on, she has had a wide-ranging career in multinationals since, and currently heads finance for a part of Shell’s IT business
‘Feeling depressed is natural’
A victim to the ‘last in, first out’ policy, Lakshmi Ananthamurthy—then a 26-year-old who moved to the US for a tech job—had to bear the brunt of the dotcom bubble burst in 2001. “As Indians we are not comfortable with the word ‘layoff’. We take it personally,” she says, adding that asking relatives for help invited more emotional trauma. “It felt like you are incompetent or useless.”
A month later, she got a job at a California-based tech firm, but another round of layoffs ensued, and Ananthamurthy got the pink slip again. This time she was jobless for almost a year.
Although she often thought of returning to India, Ananthamurthy soldiered on. “For me, the fact that I had gone [to the US] as a single woman on an H1 visa was a matter of pride. Coming back to India would’ve felt like accepting defeat,” she says. She used the break to learn the latest technologies and keep herself up to date with industry standards. No longer wanting to be “held ransom” by the global economy, she decided to pursue an MBA in finance, from the University of Chicago (Booth). From IT, Ananthamurthy transitioned to a wide-ranging career, working over the years at multinationals such as BP, PwC and Shell, where she currently heads finance for a part of its IT business. “Feeling depressed after going through a layoff is natural, but you don’t have to be a superhero,” she says. “Seek professional help. And don’t take it personally; it has got nothing to do with you.”
For Protima Rodrigues, life was all about rushing between meetings in the PE world. A career decision to turn yoga entrepreneur and organise workshops for the like-minded has helped her find purpose in life
‘Be open to other opportunities’
In 2014, financial services professional Protima Rodrigues headed product (Cross Sell) at Capital First, now called IDFC Bank. The company was taken over by private equity fund Warburg Pincus and some verticals, including hers, were shut down, resulting in her losing her job.
After three months of looking for product roles, Rodrigues decided to move into the unchartered territory of real estate private equity. Although it was “embarrassing”, she did not hide the fact that she had been laid off. “I did worry about the fact that recruiters would leverage that and offer roles with pay cuts,” she says.
She eventually joined a Mumbai-based private equity firm without having to compromise on her salary. “But the trauma of having lost a job stayed with me and I turned into a workaholic,” she says.
However, Rodrigues took a few days off and decided to attend a yoga retreat during her stint with the PE firm, to attend to her mental and physical health, in 2015. “Being a woman in a man’s world like financial services you’re expected to build a strong exterior and move further and further away from who you really are,” she says. “Connecting with myself spiritually made me realise who I truly was as a person and the value of yoga in daily life.”
In 2018, Rodrigues, then 40, quit her private equity job to set up a company called True Bay India which focuses on Ashtanga yoga workshops and retreats. “In the three months that followed after I was laid off, I found myself in the rabbit hole of overeating and not exercising,” she recalls. “It feels like your whole world has come crashing down, but you have to ride the storm and remind yourself to be open to new opportunities. Swallow your pride and make that call. No one will ring your doorbell with an offer letter if you sit around. You have to keep trying.”
Sudeepta Sahu in her engineer’s coat at the R&D department of a polymer bearings firm in the UK in 2011. Her layoff prompted her to study further—in 2016 she graduated from ISB with an MBA, which equipped her with the skills to start her own food business called Snackpot
‘Be honest with future employers’
After graduating in mechanical engineering in Pune in 2008, Sudeepta Sahu took up trainee engineering jobs in the city. But her goal was to get on-site experience abroad. She was selected for an employment exchange programme conducted by India and Britain, and placed at a polymer bearings firm in Yorkshire, in the R&D department. The firm had plans to start an India office and a year later, Sahu was asked to be part of the team that led its India operations from Delhi.
Sahu negotiated a ‘fancy’ pay package—about 30 percent above market value—to relocate. “It was the kind of profile that would be extremely well paid abroad, but not in India,” she says. However, nine months later, the company went through a management change. The new bosses decided to shut down the office and laid off the team.
Sahu then moved to her parents’ home in Hyderabad, a city without many manufacturing companies. “I wanted to continue in the bearings industry and in a similar role,” she says. The search wasn’t easy, but Sahu did not give up. “I knew I had good engineering design skills for which I got appreciation from clients across South Asia,” she says. “I landed a small, part-time job with a US client that wasn’t great for my experience, but it helped me hone my software design skills.”
Finally, Sahu got a call from a Bengaluru-based company for a profile that she wanted without having to compromise on her pay package. “The interviewer asked me what I had been doing for the past four months,” she says. “I explained that it was unfortunate that I had lost my previous job, but showed him my part-time work, how I had enhanced my skills. He was impressed. I’ll ask everyone in a similar position to be honest about being laid off because most people at the top will understand that such strategic decisions are not an indication of your work.”
In October 2019, Sahu launched a packaged food manufacturing company that focuses on healthy snacks, currently selling B2B to corporate parks.
“I think this business ties all my skills together. We had great momentum till the lockdown began,” she says. “What I learnt from being asked to go was that you have to learn not to take it as your own failure. It’s a company decision, for whatever reason.”.
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(This story appears in the 08 May, 2020 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)