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Why the placement cell is central to a B-school student’s career

In the scramble to find well-paying jobs for entire batches of MBA graduates and prepare students for corporate life, members of placement committees sometimes end up intimidating them

A file image of recruiters from companies at IIM, Ahmedabad

A is an engineer by training, a film-maker by passion and a management student by choice. “I have a history of taking big decisions I was not sure of,” he says. That wasn’t the case when he decided to pursue an MBA (master of business administration). He was sure of it months into his first job as an associate at a consulting firm in Pune.

That was 2016. “I saw how my manager would go about things,” he recalls. “Like working with us to figure out deadlines, communicate and create timelines, pitch for other projects, handle unforeseen problems....” It involved imagination and teamwork; getting things done by finding people who fit the job. “That’s what being a (film) director is also about, right? Knowing what needs to be done and finding the right people for it.”

A, 27, is now a first-year student at the Management Development Institute (MDI), Gurugram. It took him two attempts to get in. But none of the glossy brochures had prepared him for the high-pressure environment. It left him depressed, and disenchanted with corporate culture. At the core of this, he says, was the placement committee, or “placecom”, a student-driven body in charge of campus placements.

A’s story, which he shared over multiple phone interviews, throws light on a rarely acknowledged culture at top B-schools, one of gruelling work hours and opaque placement processes, all to make students “corporate-ready”.

Lounge interviewed 14 other current and former students from premier colleges like the Narsee Monjee Institute of Management Studies (NMIMS), Xavier School of Management (formerly Xavier Labour Relations Institute, or XLRI), and Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) at Indore, Kozhikode and Rohtak. Most requested anonymity for fear of reprisal by peer groups and alumni. But they confirmed variations of the practices A has faced.

All B-schools, they said, want to secure 100% campus placements, which helps bolster their reputation. The task of securing internships and jobs is executed by placecoms, which consist of members who are elected or selected, depending on the B-school. The process is centralised, with placement committees vetting the CVs, forwarding them to companies, setting up interviews and communicating job offers.

Placecoms, headed by a faculty member and comprising a dozen or more students, depending on the size of a batch, enjoy a fair amount of autonomy in day-to-day functioning. Under pressure to achieve their goals, however, they often nurture a cut-throat ecosystem that normalises unhealthy work practices.

“Two years in B-schools condition you into thinking bullying is fine and you shouldn’t question it,” says Urvashi Jain, an alumna of the 2018 batch at MDI. Misuse of power was rampant, she says. During one of her interactions with placecom, a member once checked her phone and yelled at her for texting about the committee to fellow students. “When you then enter the workforce and chance upon such behaviour, you won’t question it. People don’t report it because they think it’s normal.”

In April 2019, Srikanth Prasad J., an alumnus of the 2019 batch at IIM, Calcutta, published a nearly 8,000-word blog, “The Intentionally Hidden Truths Of IIM Calcutta”, on Medium. Placecom, he wrote, would often scream, intimidate and verbally abuse the students they were managing. During a corporate presentation in his year, a student left his seat and went to the next row. This, Srikanth wrote, led to the placecom launching a two-hour investigation and threatening to expel 20 students in the row if they didn’t reveal who the offender was.

Such behaviour would cause some students to break down in front of their peers. “It takes a significant let down of your self-respect just to survive through the system,” he concluded. “The only skills which take you higher are subservience.”

For years, B-school graduates have preferred to stay mum, brush aside or laugh off this culture. But a few students like Jain, Srikanth and A are speaking up. While MDI stood by its processes, IIM, Calcutta told Lounge “the investigations into grievances reported to the institute have led to changes in processes and policies”.

In an email to Lounge in February, Prof. Anju Seth, IIM-C’s director, noted: “There is a well-defined, widely shared mechanism ensuring that the student grievances are resolved in a fair, transparent, time bound manner. We follow a stakeholder-driven approach that encourages questions, dialogue, and finding solutions that carefully balance the interests of recruiters and students within the institute’s rules.” IIM, Calcutta, she added, “has adopted an integrated system to handle student applications and running a sophisticated candidate management system”.

Indian students wait to graduate during the 48th graduation ceremony for Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad (IIM-A) in 2013
Indian students wait to graduate during the 48th graduation ceremony for Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad (IIM-A) in 2013 (Sam Panthaky/AFP via Getty Images)

A two-year MBA is designed to cover wide-ranging subjects: from accounting, finance and administration to strategy, entrepreneurship and communication skills. Graduates of reputed B-schools manage India’s largest companies and wield significant influence on the corporate culture. At the IIM campuses of Ahmedabad, Bengaluru and Kolkata, the top three B-schools, entire batches are reportedly placed within a couple of days. With an MBA being considered one of the surer ways of securing a foothold in the corporate world, there has been a spurt in colleges offering the degree. India now has over 5,500 business schools and produces over 500,000 graduates every year. Students then are told to work harder to stand out from the rest.

Every “fresher” is told to start working towards campus placements from Day 1. First-year students prep for summer internships and final-year students for job offers. “In a B-school like ours, everyone is already good at academics. Our CV formats are the same, to the point it looks factory-produced. But each company wants to see something different in students,” says Ajinkya Somvanshi, a 2018 graduate from IIM, Bangalore.

So students scramble to join college clubs and interest groups for “CV points” which demonstrate their aptitude beyond academics. A two-year course in most top B-schools costs 17-25 lakh, and most students hope to offset the expense through well-paying jobs. Members of the placecom, too, are aware of the aspirations riding on them. Vineeta Singh, CEO of SUGAR Cosmetics, graduated from IIM, Ahmedabad in 2007. Campus placements were the “most important aspect of B-school education”, she recalls. “In my entire time there, I saw one or two students choose subjects based on what they were passionate about rather than the grading based on the status of the employer.... When you are living there, surrounded by people who think like that 24 hours, it’s difficult to not come under peer pressure. You end up joining the rat race and want to prove your worth.”

*****

A’s term at MDI started online in August 2020. Usually, placement committee sessions are held around midnight in a college auditorium; this year they were held over Microsoft Teams. Everyone was expected to show up: suited and well-groomed. These sessions, held throughout the year, are meant to walk students through the process: show them how to streamline CVs, present themselves at the pre-placement talks (PPTs) by companies, and eventually, prepare them for the corporate world. But these sessions, A recalls, often resembled “a mass ragging session”.

Lounge has copies of some sessions that were recorded by a student. It has confirmed their authenticity with other students from the batch.

The recordings show that on a few occasions, placecom members derided students on the basis of their CVs and picked on people for what they saw as indiscipline. This could involve everything from not being clean-shaven to holding the microphone too close to the mouth, not replying on time, or replying too soon. Any such act of “indiscipline” could result in an “infraction”. In several colleges, placecoms can bar repeat offenders from interviewing with certain companies or impose fines of up to 5,000.

In a session in September, A was pulled up for wiping his brow. “Why you fidgeting?” a placecom member asks in the recording. A explains he was sweating. “You don’t move,” the member says, suddenly raising his voice. “And don’t f***ing answer back.” In the same clip, a placecom member asks why one student had got up. “Sorry, my charger had come off, sorry,” the student explains. “Answer back kaise kiya be?” the placecom member demands.

“It was like they tried to act as the worst kind of leaders you can come across,” says C, a student from MDI’s 2020-22 batch.

In MDI, students had seen how the placecom had barred B, from the same batch, from interviewing with Google for an internship after he failed to show up at the first placecom meeting.

Explaining his absence, B tells Lounge, “I had communicated to them that 1.30am was a strange time, that I stayed with my parents and didn’t want to keep them up.” Placecom didn’t see it that way.

MDI isn’t an outlier. A graduate from the 2018 batch at NMIMS, Mumbai compares her first encounter with the college placecom to a “Roadies audition”. “They are trying to find someone to make an example of,” the student says. “You feel like you should just hold your breath and listen, for they will question you even if you move around.”

“It would be very short, very crisp and very rough,” a final-year student from IIM, Indore recalls. “Once, a professor came and said this isn’t ragging, this is part of the process.”

NMIMS didn’t respond to Lounge’s email requests for comment. The dean of IIM, Indore did not wish to comment.

Prof. Kanwal Kapil, dean of placements at MDI, explains on email that the late hours are necessary “to prepare (students) for the summer internship process by various companies which conduct these processes at wee hours of the morning as they follow US timelines”. The “confidentiality” around placement processes, he adds, aims “to ensure a smooth placement process for the students and to protect the privacy of the students”. He did not address the allegations of verbal abuse and intimidation.

In September, one placecom member verbally abused A during a virtual meeting. The reason: A, like some students, had laughed at a joke a guest speaker had made about the committee. A complained, and one institute official offered to mediate but asked him to reconsider his decision to pursue formal action.

Thereafter, A claims, he was “effectively blacklisted” by placecom. For the summer internship placement, he says he had to wait two weeks longer than his peers for the committee to verify his CV, during which time he was unable to apply to companies he wanted to intern at. He eventually landed an internship, but not in a company or sector he had hoped for. Prof. Kapil says verification after two weeks is standard practice for all students “who do not follow the basic guidelines laid down for all students”. He did not indicate which guidelines had been violated in this instance.

*****

Being a placecom member is a high-pressure, high-responsibility job. Mohit Periwal, who graduated from IIM, Rohtak in 2018, was a placecom member in his final year. For most placecomers, he says, the work takes a toll on their studies and eats into their sleep and social life—hours of cold-calling, multiple trips to potential recruiters’ offices and travel across India.

Periwal’s first task was to get companies to the campus and convince them to recruit as many students as possible. “Once we had established a relationship, we would invite companies to the college for a PPT,” says Periwal. “We would prep students to ask the recruiters smart questions so they are interested in coming back to recruit.... For every 150 calls we would make, we could only convert one or two.”

To get students to take the process seriously, Periwal admits that committee members would often “shout” at the juniors. Acts of indiscipline—like not being clean-shaven or not showing up for a session—resulted in an “infraction”; four-five infractions meant a student could be barred from a placement interview. “We had to instil fear—if they don’t prepare themselves, the job offers won’t work. That’s what our seniors did too,” he says.

But there is a degree of opacity in how such committees function, he admits. Since official communication is routed through them, the operation rests on trust: that the committee will forward applications to the right place, in the best shape. “It depends on the integrity of the batch,” Periwal says.

The students Lounge interviewed said they fear favouritism and repercussions if they stand up to the placecom, an apprehension B-schools like MDI believe is unfounded. “The placement committee works in silos from the batch to avoid all sorts of bias that may arise,” says Prof. Kapil on the email. “The senior committee solely works for the placement of the junior batch and vice versa (as it happens in all top B-schools) to avoid any conflict of interest that may arise.”

Often, though, seniors groom the juniors in the placecom. So, “silos” may not work. The solution, then, may be to outsource the process to an independent career services department, like the Indian School of Business (ISB) has, or hold a Career Expo for recruiters, as some B-schools in the West do. “That might do the job but it might involve extra fees,” Periwal says.

*****

The problems aren’t lost on companies.

Supratik Bhattacharyya is the chief talent officer at RPG Group. “We used to do (PPTs) until two years ago. Then we realised, except for the front bench, everyone has gone to sleep because you don’t know how many such talks they are forced to go to.”

RPG recruits 70-75 graduates from the top 10 B-schools every year. But the process, he acknowledges, can be unhealthy. Students are rounded up in the auditorium for hours, and wait for their turn. “I have seen so many guys looking so tired, sweating, his tie is hanging out... I don’t see why a person should stay up till 3am to be a part of the corporate world,” says Bhattacharyya. “Maybe it’s their definition of resilience but that doesn’t make sense to me.”

The fault, he admits, lies at both ends. “Recruiters like us want to go as early as possible; everyone’s competing for time.” Bhattacharyya says he isn’t aware of any abusive practices but adds that corporate culture has changed: “Today, people are looking at companies that give them balanced, diverse career growth.”

Alok Kejriwal, CEO of the gaming portal Games2Win, says the justification of B-schools preparing students for a toxic corporate world no longer holds. Change, he suggests, is needed. “The corporate world is tough but teaching by ragging is no longer representative of it. At one time, bullies and horrible bosses ruled, but today you can’t get away with that.”

A sometimes wonders if the degree is worth the toll it’s taking. But he’s trying to look at the bright side. “I know my fair share of people, professors and peers alike, who are nothing like this,” he says. “Maybe I will have to look harder to find my niche, but I will find my place. It’s just that I now realise it might be a lot smaller than I had initially hoped.”

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