Sampath G

Archive for the ‘Management’ Category

Working from home sucks: Why Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer is right

In Culture and Society, Lifestyle, Management, Trends, Uncategorized on April 22, 2013 at 2:34 pm

In a decision that is certain to cause heated debates in HR circles, not to mention office cafeterias and water cooler hangouts, Yahoo chief Marissa Mayer has banned working from home for all her employees. As per a memo sent out last Friday to Yahoo employees, those who have been working ‘remotely’ now either have to move to the nearest Yahoo office by 1 June or put in their papers.

This won’t go down well with the world’s digital evangelists, who would have you believe that everything – from meetings to matings to partings – is best done via the internet. And as the CEO of an iconic digital company, Mayer deserves to be applauded for demonstrating the courage needed to take an unpopular, counter-intuitive decision.

A lot of nonsense has been written about stuff like ‘telecommuting’ and how organisations can ‘leverage’ technology to cut costs and improve productivity. So yes, having a chunk of your staff work from home will trim your overheads. And yes, if they are self-driven and reliable and sincere and their astral bodies roam the corridors of your office during working hours, hovering benevolently in conference rooms when strategies are being thrashed out, by all means get them to work from home.

AP

Marissa Mayer in this file photo. AP

But most companies don’t require only individual contributions from individual employees. A lot of value is derived from team interactions – from top-down, at the same level, and from downward-up. And a lot of fruitful team interactions are informal, serendipitous, and unplanned – something you simply cannot have with remote employees. And this dimension of value and employee contribution that can only come from being physically in the same space is completely lost when employees begin to operate from home.

Mayer is too smart not to have figured this out. She took over as Yahoo CEO in July 2012. In October, she had a baby. She could have easily taken maternity leave – and for as long as she wanted, a privilege she would obviously enjoy as the new CEO. But she skipped maternity leave and chose to come back to work immediately after having the baby – and with this new directive, she is evidently preaching something she believes in and already practiced.

The memo announcing this new regulation asserts, “…to become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side. That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices.”

It remains to be seen how Yahoo’s 11,500 employees take to this diktat. But Mayer makes a strong case. The leaked memo is quoted as saying in AllThingsD, “Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings … Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home.” You can’t but agree with Mayer here. Nothing can beat walking up to someone for an input, as opposed to laboriously composing email or text messages for something that could be resolved by walking across a corridor.

Of course, working from home does have its rightful place in the professional world. It is ideal for consultants, for mom-and-pop outfits that have two or three employees and cannot invest in office space. It works well for businesses that need to have just one representative each in multiple geographical locations – say, a media house that needs to have a correspondent in every continent or major commercial capital.

Some work-from-home flexibility should always be on the agenda when it comes to managing talent you cannot otherwise tap into. The smartest of tech companies – Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, HP – don’t have a fixed policy on this. They have neither banned it or nor do the particularly encourage it, preferring to go on a case-to-case basis, to be decided by the concerned manager.

Mayer’s directive will reportedly only affect a few hundred employees, but it would also cover those who have a work-from-home arrangement only one or two days a week. A disgruntled ex-Yahoo employee commented on this news at the digital media website AllthingsD, arguing that working from home was more productive than being in the office: “Why? I didn’t have to put up with numbskull self-important programmers constantly yakking to each other LOUDLY from the next set of cubicles about non-work-related stuff, and I wasn’t being distracted every 20 minutes by some bored soul coming over to my desk to go for coffee or foosball, or just to talk about the spreading ennui of knowing we were working for a company who’s (sic) glory days were long over…”

But then, the home environment is hardly insulated from distractions. As someone who tried working from home for a few months, I can vouch for the fact that, in the absence of the structure offered by the office routine, you need highly evolved self-management skills to be able to manage distractions and work at optimal efficiency.

Also, if you are in a phase where you are trying to rebuild the organisational culture and team spirit, which is presumably what Mayer is trying to do, then it would be difficult to get through to staff who are hardly ever there on your premises.

Incidentally, the strange phrasing of the directive has also led to much mirth on tech websites. “We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together,” says the memo. Well, for those Yahoo employees used to only being spiritually together, not being “physically being together” will not be an option anymore from 1 June. And it would be interesting to see how this Mayer’s edict impacts work-from-home policies in other companies.

Congratulations, you’re now a leadership expert!

In Humour, Management, Trends, Uncategorized on April 22, 2013 at 2:21 pm

I’m not an expert on leadership. But guess what? You don’t have to be! And you can still hold forth as if you are a leadership expert — because everyone is a potential leadership expert, just as everyone is a potential leader, and you too can become a leader if you pay enough money to a leadership consultant. I hereby dedicate this piece to that special breed that makes a living by ripping off suckers who will pay for ‘leadership lessons’.

If you walk into a five star hotel and throw a stone randomly (on second thoughts, if you don’t want to be thrown out by hotel security, make that an apple), it’s bound to fall on a suit who fancies himself an expert on leadership. Leadership is such a vague idea that it is impossible to go wrong when you say anything about it. But there is a small problem:
there is nothing new you can say about it.

So you have every ‘thought leader’ worth the three thoughts in his skull striving to draw ‘leadership lessons’ from the Mahabharata, ‘talent management insights’ from Sholay, and ‘unorthodox leadership tips’ from the Godfather. There is a thriving cottage industry peddling such ‘content’ – not just in the form of articles, blogs and books, but full-fledged ‘leadership development programmes’ where seemingly rational human beings subject themselves to concentrated doses of this stuff in an enclosed space.

But what’s wrong in teaching someone to be a leader, you may ask. My answer: you cannot ‘teach’ leadership anymore than you can teach strength of character. ‘Leadership’ describes a certain kind of behaviour in certain kinds of situations. Such behaviour has its roots in the person’s character – a concept that ‘leadership programmes’ are allergic to, given that ‘character’ has given way to ‘personality’ as the defining paradigm for talking about individuals in the management space.

Until the early 20th century, ‘character’ used to be the default concept for discussing a person’s actions and behaviour. But with the rise and rise of Management as a pseudo-science, two things became necessary: one, to reinvent the human being as a malleable entity that could be trained to work harmoniously with machines as per the machine’s convenience; two, to eliminate the moral dimension from human behaviour, a dimension embedded in the very concept of character, and which therefore makes it unsuitable as a term of reference in the amoral space wherein business management operates.

Management theorists realised pretty fast that while character is difficult to change, behaviour and habits are not. Personality is nothing but the sum total of your behaviour and habits. It can be scientifically observed, if not quantified. Once quantified, a person can be trained to change ‘unsuitable behaviour patterns’ and this change in behaviour can be tracked. And most importantly, ‘personality’ has no applicability in the moral domain. In other words, you can have a good personality and be a bad person (but you cannot have a good character and be a bad person).

Thus, the advantages of focussing on personality as opposed to character are manifold.
But what makes ‘personality development’ a useful tool for managing employees – flexibility, willingness to blindly follow orders, and the lack of a moral compass – renders it inadequate for leadership behaviour. Hence the amount of bilge produced on leadership everyday by wannabe management gurus.

Today you have any number of ‘personality tests’ – Myers-Briggs, TAT, Rorschah Inkblot — and some of them apparently help you identify potential leaders and ‘groom’ them. But no amount of personality reengineering is going to help in producing real leaders. Why? Because what we laud as leadership is simply the byproduct of the positive social difference a person makes – not an antecedent quality that supposedly resides in his personality and makes her ‘act like a leader’, as it were. Leadership is a set of actions borne of character, not a ‘skill’ or a personality trait that can be programmed into someone through training.

Leadership, in a word, is the difference between a Hugo Chavez and a Barack Obama. One acted according to his moral compass, exercised his political autonomy, and will go down in history as a truly great and inspiring leader. The other reserves his moral compass and autonomy only for his speeches. Nobody can deny Obama is leadership material in terms of his personality, but whether he will ever demonstrate leadership behaviour such that it makes a positive social difference to the millions of people subject to his power, is a matter of character.

Will you please brand yourself, please?

In Business, Management, Politics, Satire, Uncategorized on April 22, 2013 at 2:17 pm

Of late, for some reason that is not clear to me, I’ve been getting lots of mail offering to help me ‘reinvent my brand’. One such mailer I got yesterday beseeches me to attend a programme where I will be trained to “brand my brand”.

Sure, these days you get spammed by all sorts of mails, from those promising to enlarge your penis, to those desperate to transfer a billion dollars to your account, to those peremptorily asking you to “revert on the business proposal”. So initially, I thought I was being mistaken for a consumer product of some kind, which perhaps needed a stronger branding. But my name does not (at least to me) sound like the name of a washing powder or a tooth paste, or….well, Sampath Condoms, anyone?

But then, as a marketing whiz friend explained to me, with a duh look on his face, Hey, you don’t have to be a condom in order to be a brand. You can be (and have to be) a ‘brand’ so long as you wish to sell yourself or any aspect of yourself to anyone anywhere in any market. And this applies to each one of you reading this who is there in the job market, and in the ever-expanding celebrity market.

Just as an exercise, why don’t you try segregating all the subtly self-promotional mails you get from your so-called well-wishers/friends/networking contacts? From newspaper articles they have written, to books they have published, to the awards they have won (and secretly sponsored), to the hot/cool people they have bedded, to the parties they’ve attended and taken pictures of, to the expensive holidays they’ve enjoyed, to the videos they’ve made of themselves shaking hands with Roger Federer  – it is all one big ‘personal branding’ exercise. Or maybe not: perhaps they just figured, accurately, that you were genuinely interested in their personal milestones and they were only doing their best to assuage your hunger for the boring details of their exciting lives.

So, if you thought, like I did (and secretly still do, in the middle of the night, when my ‘Brand Custodian’ is not watching) that all talk of ‘personal branding’ is just gas, well, fart again! Sorry, think again. It does not matter any longer how good you are at what you do; nor does it matter how long you’ve been doing it (not even if you’re a brand of dentures); and it matters not at all if your ‘brand image’ is the exact opposite of what you really are.

What does matter is ‘perception management’. And if anyone knows the value of ‘personal branding’ in Indian politics today, it is the one man who needs it the most: Narendra Modi. He has hired the world’s most powerful lobbying and PR firm, known, incidentally, for its respectable clientele of war mongers. In what must go down as a brilliant case study in the annals of image management strategy, Modi has, in a short span of time, gotten the world to merge the identity of Gujarat with that of his own. So today, Brand Gujarat and Brand Modi are inseparable – and the visit to SRCC was all about investing the ‘brand equity’ of Brand Gujarat for longer term ROI on the national stage.

But brand positioning is not a simple art. As any PR executive will tell you, the whole process begins with what they call a ‘perception audit’. In Modi’s case, such an audit today would still throw up a giant bucketful of stuff that could dissolve into irrelevance even the most painstaking of brand campaigns. All the chemicals of Apco cannot wash the blood of the hands of a man who presided over what everyone knows he presided over in Gujarat in 2002. I don’t even have to say what it was – that’s how powerful Modi’s brand is, and here I am not talking about the ‘brand’ that he and his minions were trying hard to ‘build’ through his SRCC event.

Unlike Rome, brands are built in a day. All you need is money to spend. Our brave new brand-enriched world is one of smoke and mirrors, where, as Macbeth’s witches famously observed, “fair is foul, and foul is fair.”

So here, off the top of my head, is a list of entities that could do with some help in ‘reinventing’ their brand: the Indian army in Kashmir, politicians as a class, Delhi police, Dow Chemicals, Suresh Kalmadi, and that news anchor who keeps yelling on TV. Happy branding to you all!

Third Degree: Manil Suri and the mystery of the ‘closed door’ book launch

In Literature, Management, Popular Culture, Uncategorized on April 22, 2013 at 2:15 pm

 

Manil Suri’s new novel, The City of Devi, is releasing this month, and the US-based author is in India to promote his book and participate in the Jaipur Literature festival, where he is one of the star attractions.

I had reviewed Suri’s earlier novel, The Age of Shiva, for this paper, and we had remained in touch sporadically. Prior to his India visit, we connected again, and when he said he had a book launch in Gurgaon, I jumped at the opportunity to meet one of my favourite writers. But strangely enough, Suri told me to hold on. He would have to get me a special invitation, he said, as this was a “closed door book launch”.

“A closed door book launch?” I was incredulous. For most publishers in India, it’s a struggle to get a decent crowd for launches, and here was somebody actually shutting the door on potential stragglers, like me.

But more surprises followed. “What’s the venue?” I asked. “Some IT company,” he said. When I landed at the venue, I had a tough time convincing the security that I was not a terrorist but “a personal guest of your special guest, Mr Suri”. When they finally let me in, I walked past a large bay of cubicles to a designated closed door, opened it, and stepped in to find Suri reading from his book to a group of about 30-40 people.

The session was being moderated by the “Programme Manager — Performance Benchmarking, Value Engineering, Chief Customer Office”. As you would have guessed by now, I knew exactly what this guy did for a living. And whatever that was, his questions, at any rate, were consistently more intelligent than the ones I have heard from the good-looking, young moderators of the Jaipur Lit Fest. Here’s a gem: “You are a mathematics professor, and a novelist. Which is more difficult? Solving a differential equation or writing a novel?” Suri gave a sensible answer: Both involve problem-solving, and are tough, but a novel is more forgiving, in the sense that you can find wrong solutions, and end up writing a bad novel. But with a differential equation, you either find the solution or you don’t — the wrong one simply won’t do.

The highlight of the programme was Suri’s power point presentation (ppt) on his novel. It was definitely the most entertaining ppt I’ve ever sat through in my life, besides being the first one by an author on his novel.

Suri had included sound effects, cut-outs of faces to represent his characters, and used visual elements such as a maze and a pomegranate to illustrate the various aspects of his novel. The most fascinating dimension of his writing process was the mingling of the literary and the mathematical.

He had actually plotted the various narrative arcs, only to end up with ‘mathematical proof’ that The City of Devi could not be written. Just as he was ready to give up, his agent/editor wanted to take a look at whatever he’d written till then. He decided to polish the draft one last time before sending it to her. And that’s when he found a way to approach his material afresh, and eventually managed to ‘balance’ the fictional equation.

Suri then went on to explain how he employed the rule of threes, or the triangle, as a device to frame his plotting issues. By the time he was done, you were left wondering why more authors didn’t give ppts at their book launches instead of reading from their book.

After the event, I got talking with the IT guys, and it turned that calling Suri to their office was a part of their “employee engagement programme”. They had a number of ‘interest groups’ – and this programme had been organised by the ‘Book Interest Group’.

Suri himself seemed more than happy to interact with the group of engineers, as opposed to the usual crowd of journalists, retired bores, and wannabe authors that throng such events at books shops.

As we said goodbye, Suri mentioned that he was leaving for Jaipur the next day. And later, reading in the papers about how big the ‘open-door’ Jaipur Lit Fest has become, thanks to corporate money, I couldn’t help wondering if the average book lover in Jaipur this weekend could hope for the kind of cosy, intimate session with a celebrated author that a typical employee at this IT MNC could enjoy. I don’t want to underline the irony in this, but then, well, here I go.

Can India Inc. face the truth about the Manesar violence?

In Business, Labour Rights, Management, Politics, Social Commentary, Uncategorized on July 29, 2012 at 2:20 pm

It would be sad if the ghastly violence at Maruti Suzuki’s (MSIL) Manesar plant on July 18, 2012, in which a HR manager died, were to be understood simply as a ‘murderous workers’ vs ‘rational management’ kind of an incident. There is a history and a context to this violence, and how that is understood, and acknowledged, by India Inc. will indicate how serious we are about preventing such incidents in the future.

First of all, let’s begin with a game of call-a-spade-a-spade. When your profits go up by 2,200% over nine years (MSIL’s from 2001-02 to 2010-11), when your CEO’s pay goes up by 419% over four years (MSIL CEO’s from 2007-08 to 2010-11), when you get a 400% increase in productivity with just a 65% increase in your workforce (from 1992-2000), when your workers’ real wages increase by just 5.5% when the consumer price index rose by 50% (2007-11) (figures as reported by the researchers Prasenjit Bose and Sourindra Ghosh in The Hindu), when a worker can lose nearly half his salary for taking a couple of days leave in a month – you have a situation that free market economists are programmed not to register: extreme exploitation.

As per media reports, about 65% of MSIL’s workers in its Manesar campus are non-permanent – contract labour, apprentices, trainees, what have you. While the permanent worker gets a maximum of Rs17000 per month, the contract worker gets a maximum of Rs7000. The CEO gets a little more, about Rs.2.45 crore per annum (and this is a 2010-11 figure). And unlike the worker, who gets only two 7.5 minute tea/toilet breaks during an eight-hour shift, and has to run 150 metres to pick up his tea and snack, run another 400 metres to the toilet, drink tea and piss at the same time, holding his cup in one hand and you-know-what in the other, and run back to the assembly line before the seven minutes are up (as otherwise he could end up losing half a day’s pay), the top management does not, I think, get penalised if they spend more than 7.5 minutes at a time flooding the toilet.

The backstory

Apart from the physical and economic exploitation, what the workers were reacting to on July 18 was the sustained assault on their dignity. In 2011, there had been at least three confrontations – in June, September and October — between the workers and the management. All were totally non-violent. The workers had been agitating for an independent union in place of the ineffective ‘company union’ – the Maruti Udyog Kamgar Union (MUKU). After a lot of struggle, they registered the Maruti Suzuki Employees’ Union (MSEU) in October last year. But in the same month, the management reportedly got rid of the troublesome leadership of this union by offering them a VRS-type settlement.

The workers then formed a new union, the Maruti Suzuki Workers’ Union (MSWU) with a new set of committee members. It was this union which had been negotiating with the management through 2012 – for wage increases, for transportation facilities, slowing down the robotic pace of work, and regularisation of leave benefits.

But with the MSWU apparently making little headway in the negotiations, discontent was simmering among the workers. And on July 18, when a floor supervisor allegedly misbehaved with a Dalit worker (Jiyalal), and instead of the supervisor getting pulled up, the worker got suspended, the new union was expected to deliver – to get Jiyalal reinstated. And when it began to look like they wouldn’t be able to, violence broke out.

The management has said that the workers unleashed the violence. The workers say that the management instigated it by getting hundreds of bouncers to attack the workers, who responded to that attack. But nobody seems to know what exactly happened. The truth might be closer to what a labour activist describes as a combination of karna, karwana and hone dena.

The permanently temporary worker

At the heart of this whole mess is India Inc.’s love for contract labour. My research tells me that manufacturing cars is not a seasonal enterprise – it happens round the year; nor is assembling a car in a factory incidental to the making of a car – it is not like gardening or mopping the factory floor; nor is it something that can be done with a few dozen workers. According to the law of the land – the Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act, 1970, and Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Central Rules, 1971, it is illegal to employ contract labour where “work is perennial and must go on from day to day”, “where the work is necessary for the work of the factory”, and “where the work is sufficient to employ considerable number of whole time workmen.”

It is the employer’s responsibility to follow the law, and the government’s responsibility to ensure that it is not violated. Not even the MSIL management can deny that they have been using temporary workers for permanent, core, production work. And this is not something that happens in this one plant of Maruti Suzuki. In the entire NCR region – in Manesar, Gurgaon, Faridabad, Ghaziabad, Noida – where there are thousands of factories of all sizes that carry out manufacturing work round the year, the average percentage of permanent workers in the total workforce is 15%. About 85% of the workforce is made up of non-permanent labour. And non-permanent labour includes contract workers, apprentices, trainees, etc. — add all of them and the percentage of temporary workers becomes as high as 95% in many factories. And these workers remain ‘temporary’ for years and years. I guess you could say that corporate India’s favourite worker is the permanently temporary one.

It wasn’t always this bad. The percentage of contract labour as a proportion of the total workforce doing core manufacturing work has been steadily rising since 1991, the year liberalisation began, and today, the informalisation and fragmentation of what used to be formal or organised labour has reached absurd levels. What this means, in human terms, for the workers, is exploitation of a kind that is not much different from slave labour.

To take a simple example, many factories have what is called the ‘night shift’ and the ‘full night shift’. The ‘night shift’ is from 9am to 1am and the ‘full night shift’ is from 9am to 5 am, resuming again at 9am. Yes, 16-hour and 20-hour shifts are pretty common in the NCR, about as common as the rampant violation of labour laws. And yet, we never hear about the appalling condition of India’s working class, or about how India Inc. routinely breaks the nation’s labour laws with impunity and gets away with it. Or is it possible that this is how we want most of our fellow Indians to live? We seem to care more about one Indian winning an Olympic gold than 700 million Indians living like insects in a drain. All we hear, instead, is how ‘labour law reforms’ are necessary to improve the ‘investment climate’.

Before and after Manesar

Such extreme exploitation is bound to trigger unrest at some point, and the Manesar violence is only the latest in a long series of worker conflagrations that we have seen in the past decade – in Honda Motors, Rico Auto, Orient Craft, EIRO, Pricol and many others. And they are not exclusive to NCR – similar unrest has been seen in other parts of the country as well, and they are only set to spread even more. There are four simple take-aways from all of this:

One: the growing irrelevance of the union. The workers’ unions can only represent the permanent workers. The vast majority of the workers are temporary ones, and the union means little to them, as it does not represent them. The union has traditionally been a management tool to control the workers. But in this scenario, where the union has little leverage, the management either has to play it straight (pay fair wages, give decent working conditions and benefits) or call bouncers and goons to control the workers.

Two: there is a clear nexus between the state and the corporate managements. The two have come together to maximize the exploitation of the worker. Haryana, where Manesar is located, has not even bothered to constitute the legally mandated board that is supposed to oversee the enforcement of the Contract Labour Act. The labour department is conveniently understaffed, and the cops, like cops everywhere, protect the exploiter from the exploited.

According to the workers, not just cops, but also bouncers, local goons, private security agencies, intelligence agencies (take a wild guess who put out the story about the ‘Naxal hand’ in the incident), and even the local village headmen (many of whom are huge beneficiaries of the recent industrialisation of the area – having made money from selling part of their land holdings, from renting out accommodation to workers, from getting into the transportation business, ferrying goods and material to and from the factories, as labour contractors, and other kinds of ‘middleman’ services) have been enlisted to ‘fix’ the ‘troublesome’ workers.

Three: the average factory worker in the NCR today, particularly in Manesar, is a new breed. Corporate India is very clear what it wants: absolute control over the Indian worker. But factory workers of today are not like those workers of 20-30 years ago. They are mostly ITI-trained diploma holders, young, in their twenties, mobile-savvy, net-savvy, and don’t have the time for good old ‘Down with Capitalism’ kind of sloganeering. They don’t care for the ‘communist’ stuff any more than your standard issue MBA. Though they have been hired as contract labour, unlike, say, construction workers, they are not from dirt poor backgrounds. Many are from lower-middle or middle-middle class families; they are exposed to the mall-bound luxuries of Shining India, and they want their rightful share of the GDP they busted their ass to produce. And: they care about their dignity more than they care about their jobs, and that’s easy, because they don’t really have a job anyway – they are temporary workers hired by a contractor, see?

And when such a worker is pushed to breaking point – not just worked to the bone, but taunted and humiliated, he is liable to lash out blindly. And when that happens, you get what happened at MSIL’s Manesar plant last week. It is not a rational or premeditated action – they gained nothing from it. Such violence serves no purpose. In fact, most of them are now busy hiding from the cops. But that is the nature of a rebellion – it is not calculated, it is not rational. And that is how we must understand the Manesar eruption: as a workers’ revolt.

Four: Capitalism is not sustainable without an independent union. If you look at the so-called golden period of capitalism in the 20th century, the US after the New Deal, up to the time Reagan and Thatcher came on the scene, it was a period marked by strong independent unions that managed to get the workers a decent standard of living, and Capital was forced to keep its ‘social contract’, as it were, with Labour. But then, this period, from the 1940s to the early 1980s, was also the period when communism had to be kept at bay; it was the period when capitalists had to show the world that capitalism is a better system for everyone (and not just capitalists) than any other system.

But today, of course, there is no alternative to capitalism, or so the masters of the universe want us to believe. And they also want us to believe there is no need for an independent union because they have a right to squeeze the worker as much as they want, and can. But history – and countless management studies – has shown time and again that a union which enjoys the confidence of the workers is the best tool that management can ever have to ‘control’ the workers. Hire temporary workers, take the union out of the picture – well, you’ll rake in super-profits for a while, but you’re going to have to pay a heavy price later in terms of worker unrest, and the kind of incident we saw at Manesar last week.

Yes, it is true that India’s labour legislation right now is a total mess. We have about 55 central labour laws and more than a 100 state laws, and they are all mostly observed in the breach. It is also argued that these laws make it unreasonably difficult to lay off a worker, and this is cited as the reason why employers want to keep their permanent workers to the bare minimum. The legislation in question here is the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947, which requires companies employing more than 100 workers to seek government approval before firing anybody or closing down.

While this provision should be debated, with equal participation from all the stakeholders, India Inc. needs to look at it less as an unpleasant provision to be eliminated or circumvented, and more as a necessary reminder that a business enterprise always has a social dimension that is as important as profit, and which it ignores at its own peril. Trample on workers’ livelihood and dignity, and your profit is basically blood money – it won’t say so in the balance sheet or the P&L statement, but it will show up somewhere, later, if not sooner. It could be the money you pay to bouncers and private security agencies; or the money you spend on surveillance equipment; it could be an expensive lockout; or it could be the brain tumour caused by all the curses of your downsized workforce; or it could even be the death of one of your managers.

Instead of shedding crocodile tears about the worsening ‘investment climate’, the oligarchs who make up Indian Inc. and their MBA underlings would do well to engage in some soul-searching. For a change, they can ask themselves: Should I continue to treat the Indian worker simply as a cost factor that has to be reduced to zero, or can I treat them with a little more respect, so that they too can live, and work, with dignity?

 

G Sampath is an independent writer based in Delhi. He is reachable at sampath4office@gmail.com

When HR is short for ‘horror’

In Management, Uncategorized on June 24, 2012 at 10:18 pm
First published in DNA on April 21, 2012

There are plenty of movies and novels about salesmen, copywriters, editors, journalists, accountants, and even CEOs. But when was the last time you saw a movie or read a novel in which the hero/heroine was an HR executive? Never? Ever wonder why? I have my own theory: writers and filmmakers know that their main character should be one with whom the audience can empathise. And having an HR manager as the lead character sort of defeats the purpose, doesn’t it?
Sure, not all HR execs/departments are bad. There are exceptions, but most are busy proving the rule. Last week, I got a call from a journalist friend who had just resigned from his job at a reputed publication. He was upset with his ex-employer’s HR.
During his last month at the company, he came down with gastroenteritis and took four days’ sick leave. But the HR deducted four days’ salary from his final paycheck though he had plenty of sick leave left. Apparently, his company’s HR policy did not allow an employee to take sick leave (or fall ill) during the notice period.
“What kind of idiocy is this?” he ranted. “Suppose during my notice period I have a heart attack and so can’t come to work for a few days, my company’s humane response would be to aggravate my misery by cutting my salary!”
Evidently, both logic and fairness were on his side. And it wasn’t the first such HR horror story I’d heard. Anybody who’s ever held a job has at least one. But it got me thinking about the purpose of HR departments, and why they are so universally held in abhorrence.
So what exactly is the role of HR? You don’t have to be an MBA to figure out that HR has four critical functions that, unlike salary processing or attendance marking, can neither be outsourced nor automated: 1) retaining talent; 2) identifying talent outside and persuading them to join the organisation; 3) coming up with sensible ways of measuring performance; and 4) putting systems in place to keep employee motivation high.
While friends in the media cite the odd organisation that may be above average with functions 1 and 2 above, most HR departments are clueless about 3 and 4. This is all the more puzzling, given that if you have an effective way of measuring and giving feedback to employees, then that becomes a training tool as well, and a motivator for employees who are performing well.
Instead, in most organizations, HR bursts into the larger consciousness only during appraisal time, a process that is often the butt of cynical jokes, and not without reason, given the bad faith underlying the practice in many organizations.
A friend from the publishing world tells me (and I’m told this is not an uncommon practice) that his company’s appraisals are rigged in such a way that even if all the members of a small team have performed exceptionally well, the team leader necessarily has to give a ‘poor’ rating to at least one of her subordinates.
So, what this means is: it doesn’t matter if you are a fair-minded boss, come appraisal time, you will be forced, by your HR, to play favourites. Is there a better way than this to kill team spirit, break the trust between boss and subordinate, and provoke mutual suspicion, and jealousy between team members? And yet, HR departments continue with such appraisal systems.
The above problem is compounded by the fact that in the publishing and media space, the infamous KFAs or KRAs (Key Focus Area/Key Result Area) are often arbitrary. For example, how do you quantify two excellent editing jobs versus five so-so editing jobs? Similar questions would arise in other sectors too.
Again, common sense dictates that the approach of HR in, say, a detergent company, would be different from what is needed in a more creative field, such as the media. And yet companies are content to hire HR personnel with zero experience in their own sector, and don’t bother to give them a grounding in the specific requirements of their sector even post-recruitment. And such personnel, clueless about how to address the larger HR functions in the company, naturally seek to justify their existence through bureaucratic bull shit, looking to screw employees’ happiness over minor transgressions, which, clearly, was what happened to my journalist friend.
Of course, HR needs to put in place punitive rules to protect the company’s interests against those who may ‘abuse the system’. But how many HR departments have systems in place to reward people who report to work on off days, don’t take their compensatory offs, work from home, and go beyond the call of duty to do 16-hour shifts? The stick is fine, but one reason HR is hated is because they often do away with the carrot at the end.
Ideally, every company should ask itself: what do I want HR to do, for me to succeed as a business? The answer will vary, depending on the sector, the size of the organization, the market position of the company vis-à-vis the competition, and the brand values and corporate culture of the company. But it is this answer that ought to drive the HR of a company. It would be foolish to expect that generic HR practices would be good enough for any company. And yet, how often do we see people in HR supplement their generic HR skills with the domain knowledge specific to the industry they happen to work for? About as often as we see movies about HR managers.