Start-up founder Shantanu Deshpande went on the defensive after receiving ‘hate’ from social media users on the accusation of promoting a toxic workplace culture
“When you are 22 and new in your job, throw yourself into it. Eat well and stay fit but put in the 18-hour days for at least 4-5 years. I see a LOT of youngsters who watch random content all over and convince themselves that 'work life balance, spending time with family, rejuvenation bla bla' is important. It is, but not that early. That early, worship your work. Whatever it is. The flex you build in the first 5 years of your career carries you for the rest of it. Don't do random rona-dhona. Take it on the chin and be relentless. You will be way better for it.”
That was what Shantanu Deshpande, founder and CEO of Bombay Shaving Company, posted on his LinkedIn page on Tuesday. It opened the floodgates for criticism, landing him in a lather that he could not shave away easily.
In response to Deshpande's post, Karan Kaushal jokes that 18 hours were too few and that employees ought to give at least 40 hours. Others followed suit, with the post garnering over 1,300 comments. Andinga Tacho felt that the grooming company's founder and CEO was trying to project himself as Elon Musk and "fell hard on his face like a melon".
Another Linkedin user Satyaki Tat wondered why a fresher could not ask for work-life balance. “I hope you know we have only 24 hours a day. Since you think you are a business owner, so powerful, you can simply ask Planet Earth to rotate slowly. In that way, they can have a healthy life after working for 18 hours,” he replied to Deshpande's post.
Deshpande’s stance has also upset many human resource (HR) professionals. Sushmita Pawar (name changed on request), who heads talent acquisition for a multi-national pharma company, is trying to understand Deshpande's psyche. “Does he think that because his company is a start-up, it needs more investment of hours than other set-ups? This is a myth,” she maintained.
A principal consultant from an executive search firm was equally appalled to read the Bombay Shaving Company CEO's post. He scathingly noted, “In today's world, many entrepreneurs want to short circuit the growth process and become successful in the shortest way possible. The reason could range from greed, ego, over-confidence and competition to financial liabilities. This attitude leads them to treat their employees like machines or enslaved people and push them to work 24x7 to achieve their own personal milestones.”
Upon receiving unbridled flak for his LinkedIn post, Deshpande later updated it with an addendum stating, “Yikes. So much hate for 18-hour days. It’s a proxy for ‘giving your all and then some’.” He also invited those wondering about Bombay Shaving Company's working culture to visit the office anytime and speak to employees.
American management consultant Peter Drucker famously stated that "culture eats strategy for breakfast". While quotations like this are often plastered over their office walls, most start-ups, especially those in the early stage of their life cycle, have been synonymous with toxic work culture, which has become a global phenomenon of sorts.
Almost three years ago, 40-year-old Adam Neumann had to step down as the CEO of coworking space provider WeWork. This came on the heels of allegations that he promoted a toxic work culture at the unicorn and an initial public offering attempt that went bust.
In April, Nairobi-based Clara Wanjiku Odero, an ex-employee at Flutterwave, detailed the unethical workplace practices at the Nigerian fintech unicorn. Writing on Medium, she alleged she had been bullied and harassed by company CEO Olugbenga Agboola and had to struggle to get her dues after leaving the company.
Odero is not the only disgruntled individual who has used social media to seek accountability from their high-profile employers. In June 2022, Solomon Chau, a Tesla investor, filed a legal complaint against the automotive company's founder Elon Musk and other board members. According to a Reuters report, the lawsuit alleged, “Tesla has created a toxic workplace culture grounded in racist and sexist abuse and discrimination against its own employees.”
The list is long and Indian companies feature in it as well. Employees of Byju's have shared posts on social media about the long working hours, abusive language by superiors and a hostile work atmosphere prevalent at the edtech. Employees at fintech BharatPe, too, came out with allegations that the company has an unapologetic toxic work culture.
Rashesh Doshi, director at Talent Corner HR Services, pointed out that not all start-up founders fall into this bracket. He said, "We work with several companies, and they go to great lengths to ensure their manpower is well taken care of." Nonetheless, he, too, was stumped when he read Deshpande's post. "How can you expect someone to work for 18 hours and still stay fit?" he asked.
According to Sumit Sabharwal, CEO of TeamLease HRtech, start-up founders are highly passionate and want to grow their organisations at the same pace at which they work. However, as the team grows, not everyone shares the entrepreneur's mindset; some may prefer to end their work at a conventional time instead of burning the midnight oil.
“This is where the contrast appears; a founder would expect even an employee to work with similar passion and energy as he and his co-founders worked at the start. And it is the beginning of toxicity. Expecting anyone else to have the same drive as yourself in simple terms reflects a lack of empathy and a low emotional quotient. This promotes toxicity even if the intent is to make careers along the growth path,” he explained.
A leader is only as good as their team, and vice versa. Hence, toxic behaviour results from having unrealistic expectations coupled with inefficient systems. Doshi believed that one could not expect a fresher who is at the lowest tier of the hierarchy to put in 18 hours and deliver good results. And if a team cannot deliver even after working for eight hours, it is because of inefficient leadership, he added.
Employee Mental Health and Burnout: A Time to Act, a study conducted by the McKinsey Health Institute, reveals that four out of 10 working professionals in India face a high level of stress, burnout, distress, anxiety and depression. This is largely attributed to a toxic workplace.
Putting in extremely long hours is bound to affect an employee's mental health and productivity. Doshi pointed out that this leads to an unsustainable spiralling situation, in addition to breeding a toxic work culture. "An important part of managing talent is an ability to retain people. If you are going to hire and fire, you are actually losing more money," he argued.
The growth pattern set in the early days becomes the precedent for the future. However, a toxic but highly productive work culture ensures that the future never matches the present energy and drive.
This culture does not allow talented individuals with a priority for work-life balance to choose companies with a contrarian perspective. Instead, Sabharwal believed, it might attract highly ambitious individuals who tend to jump ship at the next best opportunity, creating a shortage of leaders in the company.
"Key people will leave the organisation and its operations in a tough situation. This may also reflect poorly on the possible future funding. Growth may be hampered, and the company may even end up losing the sustainable competitive advantage," he added.
Rajaram Agrawal, managing director of TalentAhead India, recommended that business leaders should motivate youngsters to achieve higher goal, rather than pushing them to work for 16 to 18 hours regularly. "These youngsters are highly networked and do not hesitate to upload comments on social media. In turn, it will be counterproductive for these firms to attract talent," he cautioned.
Experts say that a war for talent is currently underway in India, where good candidates are in high demand. An approach like the one Deshpande espouses will only result in high attrition while impacting the company's reputation.
Pawar noted that the cost of a vacant position in a start-up is extremely high given their need for speed in customer acquisition, business closure and scaling up. Hence, HR managers recommend that the management must focus on output rather than on hours and trust the employee to figure out ways to achieve this. This is the best way to mitigate a cultural crisis and build a team of champions, they argue.