“It was a very good lesson — that you can’t be helpless and you need to think about the options available to you,” says Kheruka, now the MD of glassmaker Borosil Ltd, on a video call from his Mumbai residence on a recent Saturday afternoon. It’s the lesson the 39-year-old Wharton graduate says fuelled the thought process that led to Borosil’s exemplary employee policy to take care of the families of employees who had died of Covid-19, a measure which has since been emulated in different degrees by the who’s who of India Inc, from
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Kheruka, whose grandfather bought the majority shareholding in Borosil from US-based Corning Glass Works in 1988, recalls the sense of helplessness he felt at the peak of the second wave of Covid, when desperate messages for beds, oxygen and medicines were being exchanged among employees every day. “We were doing whatever we could to help our employees but structurally, we couldn’t do anything.” A call from the head of Borosil’s human resources to break the news that the company had lost one of its long-time employees in housekeeping, Santosh Chalke, to Covid, became a turning point. “I couldn’t solve Covid but I could try to solve some part of it.”
When company leaders began conversations with employees across the board to gauge their mood, it quickly became obvious that it was not the fear of contracting Covid that was top of the mind. Instead, the overwhelming concern was what would happen to their families if they died, particularly when they were the primary breadwinners. “And I thought that’s something we can solve. We can protect the family, we can give the kids education till they graduate. We can reskill the spouse and give them a job if a suitable one was available,” he says. But when he asked his team to find out about similar policies on Covid deaths at other companies so that Borosil could benchmark theirs, he got a surprising response: there were none.
At a virtual employee townhall on Zoom on April 29, which began with tributes to four employees who had died due to Covid, the new company policy was shared through a presentation. The moment it was announced, Kheruka’s screen lit up with about 200 messages. But that was just the beginning. The LinkedIn posts by Kheruka and another Borosil executive, who himself had Covid at that time, on the new policy went viral, getting over two lakh “likes”.
In a matter of days, a host of other companies began making similar announcements. Some took the policy ahead, like Tata Steel, which announced that the last drawn salary of the deceased employees will be paid to their families till the age they would have retired, as well as continuing with housing and medical benefits and bearing the expenses of their children’s education. “In many ways, I think it’s great that many companies have done better than us. We did what we thought was the right thing at the time, and we are happy that we were able to influence much larger corporates,” says Kheruka.
The policy was unique for its perspective of thinking of the employees and their children as extended stakeholders of the company, says Ram Nidumolu, clinical professor, organisational behaviour, Indian School of Business. “It was not just about giving money. It gave employees a sense of belonging and the emphasis on education showed that you are going beyond the employees.” The education component, he says, made it an innovation worth emulating, which is why so many companies followed suit. In a country where over 70% parents said they were willing to go into debt for their children’s college education, according to a 2017 survey, it is not surprising that this aspect struck a chord.
Did the management estimate the cost of the policy to the company that has about 1,500 full-time employees? Kheruka says it never occurred to them. “It’s not really a policy where you calculate payback, which would be callous. As a company, we are well-capitalised and if we take a hit on our P&L because we are helping employees, I don’t think that’s something we need to think too much about.” The spouse of one of the employees who had passed away was offered a job as she had the requisite skills and has already joined the firm, he said.
Borosil companies did well last year, despite the first few months being a washout on account of the pandemic and the lockdown. Borosil Renewables, the group company which manufactures solar glass, earned a revenue of Rs 502 crore in 2020-21 and a profit of Rs 89 crore. Borosil Ltd, which makes scientific products and the more familiar consumer products like glassware, clocked a turnover of Rs 544 crore, with a profit nearly identical to the previous year, at Rs 40 crore. Kheruka attributes this to the reduction in travel and marketing costs last year, as well as the bounce-back which began in September, with high demand for glassware and cookware. Since he joined the company in 2006, after finishing his degree at Wharton and spending a couple of years with the erstwhile consultancy, Monitor C, there have been considerable diversifications, with an increased focus on consumer products such as cookware and appliances.
Kheruka says attrition has never been a big concern for the company, since it is in low single digits. On employee-rating platform Glassdoor, Borosil has a 4-star rating, with 91% reviewers saying they would recommend the company.
One of the many employees, who messaged Kheruka after the new policy, told him that now the company wouldn’t lose any more people to Covid. That turned out to be prophetic — so far. “The fear of what might happen would have been debilitating for employees. The actual impact is obviously hard to gauge but the fact is we haven’t lost any more employees since,” says Kheruka.