Why arm-twisting Better.com CEO Vishal Garg for firing 900 employees on Zoom is misinterpreting modern capitalism

Backlash against Vishal Garg is indicative of how we misinterpret capitalism when employee rebellion is considered an avante garde act of artistic mutiny, whereas tacit survival instincts displayed by the captain of the ship are almost always framed as evil.

Manik Sharma December 10, 2021 14:22:38 IST
Why arm-twisting Better.com CEO Vishal Garg for firing 900 employees on Zoom is misinterpreting modern capitalism

Vishal Garg

Devil’s Advocate is a rolling column that sees the world differently and argues for unpopular opinions of the day. This column, the writer acknowledges, can also be viewed as a race to get yourself cancelled. But like pineapple on pizza, he is willing to see the lighter side of it.

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CEOs are everyone’s favourite villain in the modern corporate story. They can do no right, avenge no wrongs, and could not clamour for sympathy even if they tried. They are after all, rich and powerful, which automatically means dishonesty and indifference must be coded into their DNA.

This week, Better.com CEO Vishal Garg made unanticipated news waves by firing 900 people of is company over a Zoom call. The rancour that followed the publication of what was supposed to be an intimate, behind-closed-doors event was expected. Garg was villainised, and subsequently arm-twisted into apologising for something that befell his responsibility to choose rather than his right.

It is indicative of how we misinterpret capitalism when employee rebellion is considered an avante garde act of artistic mutiny, whereas tacit survival instincts displayed by the captain of the ship are almost always framed as evil.

Better.com is a mortgage company, and its CEO Garg decided, for reasons best known to him, to let go 900 of its employees in a single Zoom meeting. A lot of people have since moaned on Twitter and Linkedin – the biblical groundhog abyss of corporate rhetoric – that Garg could and maybe should have done it in person. The practicality of such sentimental interventions is lost on people who want to say the right thing, knowing the onus is not on them to illustrate its application. A lot of people work in private firms for a lot of reasons – personal, aspirational, circumstantial and so on. To say that the head honcho must sit through the ignominy of trying to level with all kinds of personalities is absurd, and perhaps ignorant of the way modern capitalism works. Equal treatment also implies equally aligned rejection – no one person’s rationale is greater or more crucial than the others. 

Garg’s predicament in this scenario must first be empathised with to contextually glean the alternatives he might have had at his disposal. If you think about it, he could have done worse– an email, firing from the shoulders of his HR department, simply scream crises and pull the shutters or coldly tell these people they were not good enough (he has the right). Private firms make no promises about ethical ceilings so one must not act shocked if it cracks at some point. It is a transactional medium, where the losses, though rare, always hang from the same branch you pick your fruits from.

For that matter, Garg sounds fairly apologetic and graceful on the call, not to mention he announces separation packages for everyone on it. Even in this watershed moment – I hate to point out – recording and relaying your CEO’s intimate message for the sake of social cache is a breach of code and conduct. But again, the employee’s disobedience is fetishised, while the leader’s polite admittance of failure will be criminalised.

Not everyone in the world has the stomach to be a CEO. It is just easier to scandalise culture than work towards developing one. Also, not all employees – even the ones who are disgruntled – are the same. Nine out of 10 people leave offices every day thinking they deserve better, not because they can see things objectively but because they feel it is inherent in the mechanics of capitalism to reward hunger over capability. In some cases, it is even true, but in most, it is not.

There is a blatant and almost hilarious contradiction at play here — while greed is universal, it is only the CEOs, the faces we identify most vehicles of financial ambition with, who have to live through social purgatory to earn their right to be called human. In their hands, wealth (theirs), and everything they do with it, is crony, unless it can trickle down to our pockets. There, it is sagely social currency we donate every other day for the upkeep of the poor and the underprivileged. Less is more, in terms of argumentative heft here, quite literally.

I have never been fired from a job but have left a few in a hurry, almost elated by the promise of freedom. To be honest, if I were to be fired, I would rather wish it be part of a team culling rather than be the lone scalp – just so I do not feel too sorry for myself. Losing as a team is much easier to cope with than losing as an individual. Also, the sense of collective anger and resentment is far more agreeable than the lonely walk of ignominy towards the elusive next step.

Rather than isolate people and shoot them like ducks in the corner of a barn, Garg probably assumed it was a moment that warranted collective empathy. There is no good way to dump anyone – personally or professionally – let alone dump 900 people at the same time. Whether Garg acted out of economic prudence or selfish motive, the line between the two is so thin, he could not have avoided criticism either way.

It is just the nature of the world to expect a sense of moral permanence when life and opportunities themselves are temporary. Which is why villainising Garg’s margin call, its tone and method, is easier compared to filling his chair, making that call, and ensuring the good in goodwill lasts.

Manik Sharma writes on art and culture, cinema, books, and everything in between.

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