Overtures and Undertones at the Workplace

This is an original free case-study I wrote for a class on Business Ethics. Feel free to use this in any way you like. All I request is that if you do use this case study (or a derivative of this case) in any way, please drop me a message with a link. Thanks!

Overtures and Undertones at the Workplace: an Ethical Dilemma

Rajat Sharma settled into his chair at the office. It was going to be one of those late nights again. Although he was the CEO and Owner of Globodyne Software, Inc., tonight he had sent the staff home and was alone in his office at Calcutta, waiting for an important conference call with a client based in Columbus, Ohio. This was not unusual, as Globodyne, Inc. was a small software firm, and things were run pretty informally. Bored of reviewing his notes for the meeting, Sharma checked his mobile phone. There was one new text message, from his project manager Anita Vohra. “Sir, I have mailed you some pics of mine. Let me know what you think of them.” Puzzled, Sharma logged into his work e-mail. To his surprise, he found that Anita had mailed him five pictures of herself, in which she was wearing practically nothing. The meeting was just five minutes away, but, as he looked at the pics, Sharma realised the meeting was now the least of his problems.

Undertones of Overtures

A year ago, Rajat Sharma had started Globodyne Software, Inc., in a small rented flat in Calcutta. While still at his day job, he had assembled a team of his friends from college to launch his own venture. Working for Sharma, they had developed Aegis, an security software application that was Globodyne, Inc.’s flagship product today. The Aegis software was a runaway success, and within a year it had over a million users in over 40 countries.

Despite its fledging success, Globodyne, was still a very small company with only seven full-time employees. When he needed more employees, Sharma just hired people he knew from his college days, or by references, and managed the HR functions himself.

As the software market moved towards the Software as a Service (SaaS) model, Globodyne, had just launched Medusa, an expensive project to develop a cloud-based data encryption application. The development was being outsourced to four teams, located in Ukraine, South Africa and America. To manage this complex and expensive project, Sharma had hired Anita Vohra, a smart, self-assured and good-looking MBA with a few years of project management experience.

Anita turned out to be good at her complex job, and she efficiently coordinated the efforts of Globodyne’s multiple design, development and testing teams around the world. The Medusa project was Sharma’s largest investment and his biggest bet for the future. Things were going really well, until today’s e-mail with her nude photographs attached.

Sharma’s thoughts wandered to the conversations he had had with Anita in the office. Had he encouraged her in any way? Globodyne, Inc. had a young workforce, and the average employee age at the office was 24. Since all his employees and himself were so young, Sharma had always encouraged an open and friendly atmosphere at work. He would often have friendly chats with the employees, and they would all have lunch together. He would often lend a sympathetic ear to his employees’ troubles – but now it seems his gestures had been badly misinterpreted. Had he brought this on himself? Had he misled Anita by his behavior?

Globodyne was a small company, and had no pre-existing HR policies against workplace relationships. Moreover, Sharma had been deeply involved in his venture for a year now, and that left no time for a personal life. Neither was he married, nor did he have a girlfriend; he was single. However, he knew there was no question of encouraging Anita further. As a boss, he believed he had a fiduciary relationship towards his employees, and a relationship with a subordinate could be a breach of trust, and at worst it could even expose him to claims of favouritism, or even sexual harassment.

For a moment Sharma considered ignoring the incident. If he didn’t respond or mention the matter to Anita, hopefully she would get the hint and refrain from such improper suggestions. On the other hand, he had his doubts. Wouldn’t ignoring this incident embolden Anita and encourage further such behaviour? Sharma remembered some advice his mentor had given him in a different context, but which seemed applicable here – “never leave problems to grow”. Would his silence tonight be read as acceptance tomorrow?

“So,” Sharma felt, “I should say no.” He did like Anita, after all she was smart and pretty, and he could definitely do with a girlfriend in his life – but somewhere inside he knew the right answer was no.

But could he reject her advances without affecting her work performance? By e-mailing him nude pictures, Anita had already crossed an unprofessional line. In such a situation, rejecting her outright handling the situation indelicately would affect her morale, and more importantly, her work on the Medusa project. That project was too important and too expensive. If Medusa failed, Globodyne would have to bear heavy losses, as well as be unprepared for future customer demands. Would it not be better to play along for the time being?

As he pondered his response to his employee e-mailing him nude pictures of herself, Sharma leaned back in his office chair. He couldn’t say yes, since it would be immoral. He couldn’t say no, since it could affect his expensive project. And he couldn’t ignore it either. As his phone rang for the conference call, Sharma felt caught between the devil and the deep sea.

A problem and decision analysis of the HBR Clayton Industries, Inc. Case

This case is about the challenges faced by Peter Arnell, who has taken over the Italian subsidiary of Clayton Industries, a sixty-year-old U.S.-based firm in the HVAC industry. The short analysis I present is one of many possible readings of this case, and specifically covers existing problems and potential decision options.

The case is available from the Harvard Business Review website.

Problem Analysis

The key business issue facing Clayton in late 2009 is that its Italian subsidiary, Clayton SpA, has been making heavy operational losses for three years now, to the tune of over $1 million USD a month.

While these losses have been exacerbated due to a general global recession which has reduced sales (which are down by 19%), their root cause lies in the fact that since 2001, Simonne Buis had been making organizational changes, and trying to create a more integrated European organization. In the pursuit of this, she set goals for individual subsidiaries with a broad brush that did not consider the intricacies of local markets. This framing of common targets ignored the strengths and weaknesses of individual subsidiaries.

Despite customers’ preference and technical limitations for local brands, Buis drove her vision for Europe-wide sales of premium country-specific brands. This strategy was doomed to fail in the face of competition from other local brands and price competition from Asian manufacturers. In response to CEO Dan Briggs’ concerns about cost, Buis asked all subsidiaries to follow her 10/10/10 plan to reduce receivables, inventory and headcount. This would cause different problems in different geographies.

Clayton SpA had strong political connections which they leveraged to get large projects. Following Buis’ plan meant that they would have had to lose this advantage in order to push sales in room air-conditioners and ventilators market – which was never their strong suit, and where their chances of success were bleak in the face of competition. At the same time, Buis had so far refused to fund expansion of capacity in Spain for the advanced absorption chiller technology that the market was moving towards. This meant that Clayton were not preparing to offer products that customers would demand in the future.

The overall effect of Buis’ strategy was to dilute the local subsidiaries’ efforts into areas where they were weak, while inhibiting their capability to capitalize on their strengths. This hit Clayton SpA (Italy) hard on the profitability front, and also reduced Clayton Industries USA’s overall preparedness to address future market requirements.

Decision Analysis

I recommend that Peter Arnell hold off any further investments for now, and focus on efficiency measures in Clayton SpA (Italy) to restore profitability.

This course of action directly addresses the immediate business problem of Clayton losing $1 million a month, and maintains Clayton’s overall strategic course as well, while still giving Arnell time and space to plan for future growth.

Going forward, Arnell has these four options:

  1. Follow the Italian managers’ suggestions for their market, and invest there
  2. Invest in building capacity for modern absorption-chiller technology in Spain
  3. Exit the European commercial air-conditioning market
  4. Hold off any investments for six months, and tighten efficiency measures in Italy

His options should be evaluated against these three criteria:

  1. Profitability
  2. Future (post-recession) potential for growth
  3. Acceptance from all stakeholders

A brief analysis of each decision option vis-à-vis the criteria is presented here:

  1. Follow the Italian managers’ suggestions for their market:
    1. Profitability: This decision may or may not lead to profitability in the long term, based on the implementation. But it will definitely require investments in the Italian plant, which will reduce profitability at a time when there is a cash crunch.
    2. Potential for growth: The compression chiller technology is being superceded by absorption chiller technology, and investments in new products in this line will not ensure future potential.
    3. Acceptance from all stakeholders: While being acceptable to the Italians and his boss Buis, this option will not be acceptable to the CEO, Briggs.
  2. Invest in a new plant for absorption-chiller coolers in Spain:
    1. Profitability: This decision may lead to profitability in the long term, especially as market demand shifts towards absorption chillers. However, it requires an upfront investment, which will strain Clayton’s books. More importantly, choosing this option does not address in any way the problem that Clayton’s Italian operations are bleeding a million dollars a month.
    2. Potential for growth: This decision option has a very high potential for growth, and further market and technical research is advisable to make a stronger case for investment.
    3. Acceptance from all stakeholders: The investments required will require stronger justification and political manoeuvring. This option will not be acceptable to his boss Buis, who has invested politically in the Italy strategy.
  3. Exit the European commercial air-conditioning market:
    1. Profitability: Shutting down the Italian plant will immediately stop the heavy operating losses; however in the absence of a strong and developed alternative source of revenue it will affect the future of Clayton Industries.
    2. Potential for growth: This decision option by definition has extremely limited potential for future growth, unless alternatives are developed.
    3. Acceptance from all stakeholders: This strategy will be unacceptable to Arnell’s boss Buis, and is likely to cause major labour and legal problems in Italy for Clayton.
  4. Hold off investments and tighten efficiency in Italy (Recommended):
    1. Profitability: This directly addresses the profitability issue faced by the Italian plant, and is a good short-term measure that does not hamper any long-term plans or call for any sudden shift in strategic direction.
    2. Potential for growth: This decision option does not directly contribute to growth potential. However by focussing on the critical issue at hand and restoring profitability, it does bring Clayton into a stronger position from where it can plan for future growth. Options like investing in a Spanish plant call for a shift in strategic direction, and this decision gives Arnell the space for further research and analysis to support such a shift.
    3. Acceptance from all stakeholders: There will be some resistance from Italian labour (eg FILM), but Arnell can use provisions like the Cassa Ingrazione Guardagni (CIG) to implement this decision. This decision will have strong support from Arnell’s boss Buis, as well as the CEO Briggs.

To conclude, Simone Buis’ strategy of integrating all European subsidiaries, and the common policies she framed to further that goal, has created problems for individual subsidiaries. However the current business problem is that the Italian plant is making heavy operational losses as a result of those policies, and any decision should address these losses as top priority.

By holding off any further investments and focus on efficiency measures in Clayton SpA (Italy) to restore profitability, Peter Arnell should aim to being Clayton SpA into the black, and use this time to study further options that can poise the company for future growth.