Three questions I would like to ask Surbana’s CEO

By: Renchoo

Surbana Jurong is an infrastructure consultant owned by Temasek Holdings. Before last week, most Singaporeans wouldn’t have heard of them. But now, more Singaporeans would know who they are. Why? Because they terminated the employment of 54 employees.

Surbana Jurong was quick to emphasise that this exercise wasn’t a retrenchment. Of course, Singaporeans who are cynical asked whether the reason Surbana Jurong refused to call the exercise a retrenchment because they want to avoid paying the affected employees retrenchment benefits.

So the CEO of Surbana Jurong, Mr Wong Heang Fine came out to explain. He sent a strongly worded email to everyone in Surbana Jurong to explain that those employees were asked to leave because they’ve been performing poorly. He said:

“… we have taken steps in the last two weeks to release a group of employees in Singapore comprising of poor performers with majority having been repeatedly so.”

Fine. I agree that companies should have the flexibility to sack staff who are consistently performing poorly. There are some people who are just not good fit for the job that they signed up for. They end up being deadweight. Companies certainly have the right to let go of those employees so that they can utilise their resources more efficiently. That said, there are a three things that I don’t think are fine with Mr Wong’s email.

Were the staff really performing poorly?

In his email, Mr Wong asked:

“How can we inspire and motivate others to take leadership if we ourselves are not particular that every year your own performance bonus and increment are nominal?”

Wait. Does that mean that those who were sacked were still getting their performance bonus? Hang on. I’ve always thought that you only get your performance bonus if you… actually performed. Not just performed, but performed above expectations. So isn’t it contradictory that the employees who were sacked received performance bonuses yet consistently performed poorly?

What’s more, according to Mr Nasordin, the President of the Building Construction and Timber Industries Employees’ Union (Batu), eight of the affected workers were staff who were offered re-employment, or contract renewal. If those staff were performing poorly, why did Surbana Jurong still offer them re-employment, or renew their contract?

So were those employees who were sacked really performing poorly? If they were, then I will have to conclude that Surbana Jurong’s HR department is very schizophrenic.

Was there a due process?

Fine. Let’s assume that Surbana Jurong’s HR department is indeed schizophrenic and does things that contradict itself. Let’s assume that those employees who were sacked were indeed performing poorly. Then the next question is that we must ask is whether Surbana Jurong followed due process. Or was there one in the first place? Did they have a performance improvement plan (PIP) to give poor performers a chance to improve?

As Mr Nasordin said:

“Usually, before a union member is terminated, the details of the case would be officially given to the union to ensure our members will be given fair treatment and that due process is followed. This was not observed.”

So it seems that Surbana Jurong didn’t follow any due process. Instead, they just decided that their employees are merely means to production, to be used when needed, thrown away when no longer useful. It’s as if Surbana Jurong doesn’t treat its employees as human beings. Rather heartless of them, no?

Why now?

Speaking about being heartless, it’s quite heartless to inform those affected staff that they are being sacked at this time of the year. It is going to be Chinese New Year soon. It’s supposed to be a period of joy and celebration. But those affected staff who are Chinese won’t be able to celebrate. Instead, they’ll be worried about all the uncertainties that comes with suddenly losing their jobs. And how are they going to face their relatives?

So. Fine. Let’s say that those affected employee were really performing poorly consistently for long periods of time. Let’s also assume that those affected employees were warned and counselled before. But can’t Surbana Jurong wait for another month before breaking the news? Why must they break the news now, weeks before Chinese New Year? Why is Surbana so heartless?

That’s the point that Singapore Industrial and Services Employees’ Union (SISEU) general secretary, Mr Philip Lee made.

Taking all these things together, it seems that Surbana Jurong is a really shit place to work in. It thinks that the only way to motivate its staff is by using carrots and sticks. It doesn’t know any other way to inspire its staff to aspire for greatness, to see greater meaning in their work, to become masters of their craft. So, maybe, just maybe, that’s the real reason that Surbana Jurong hasn’t been able to perform – it doesn’t know how to maximise the potential of its staff.

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