Thursday, June 10, 2010

by Kiran Gandhi*

Kiran Gandhi (Photo: Vins)A few months ago the Indian Express carried this story:

Sandeep Jadhav, a 27-year-old professional in India’s outsourcing industry had only seen the good times. He worked hard in the local subsidiary of an American software company and took home an annual salary of about Rs 5 lakh.

He frequently bought expensive sarees for his wife, toys for his eight-month-old son and cricket gear for himself, maxing out on his two credit cards. In December, he planned to take a home loan and buy an apartment in Kanakapura suburb of Bangalore.

Last week on Tuesday, Jadhav was called in by the vice-president of his company, handed a month’s salary and sacked on the spot.

“I signed the letter, took my cheque and walked out without speaking a single word. It was all over in five minutes,” said Jadhav, reliving the moment. The vice-president told him that he was being terminated due to “bad market conditions”.

None of this makes much sense to Jadhav’s father, an official with a government-owned bank, who reacted, “I cannot believe this can happen”. Jadhav says that his father has worked for the bank for 29 years. He expects to continue working there for the next four before retiring.

The story represents the challenge today’s Human Resource Development experts face. It is illustrative of the rapidly changing values in India’s corporate world and the society at large, which in turn are driven by the global business and economic environment and its emerging values. Is Jadhav to blame for what has happened to him, and to his family? Is his company justified in sacking him when there are no complaints about his work? What options does it have? What is the emerging image of corporations? In this environment, is it fair to expect that employees should have a sense of belonging to their organizations? How are corporate values playing out in the lives of millions of their stakeholders around the world?

In my 31 years of corporate experience with four companies, I too faced governance challenges. Tata Motors in Jamshedpur was my ‘breaking in’ experience into the corporate world. As a young trainee, I saw the plant of the company almost paralysed by a combination of selfish union leaders – both formal and informal - and managers, seeking personal advancement by playing manipulative games. At that time, I was fresh from my encounter with MRA-Initiatives of Change and had, under its influence, made a decision to opt for joining the Human Resource function in the company’s management training centre. Reflecting over the situation in the company in my quiet time (my regular practice since meeting MRA), I had a thought to initiate a training program which would open a direct dialogue between senior management and the shop-floor workers. The Human Relations at Work program was born as a result, which provided a platform for trust-building through honest dialogue between managers and workers, as against perpetuating their historical mistrust of each. The idea was an amazing success. Hundreds of hidden conflicts and tensions were brought up for direct discussion and subsequent resolution through this program.

Honest dialogue can create new trust and lead to positive change. My learning from this experience was that one of the roles of HR professionals is to innovate tools for transparency. One of the spontaneous initiatives which arose from this program was a “TELCO WE CARE” group, which discretely highlighted to top management certain prevailing corrupt practices lower down in the organisation. Resulting corrective action by the management put an end to these wrong practices. In addition, arising from an enhanced trust level between labour and management, hundreds of voluntary improvement groups, called Small Groups, comprising of representatives of the workers and management were formed, which contributed solutions to a wide range of the company’s issues, including better human relations at work.

In my second job at Thermax in Pune, as Manager - Organisation Development & Training, I noticed a lot of ‘turf wars’ between managers belonging to different functions. There was a lot of blaming going on. In my quiet time, I conceived of initiating inter-functional team building workshops. These workshops contributed immensely towards building a collaborative work culture to replace the earlier one of fighting and competing with each other. The change not only led to less stress at work for everyone, but also contributed to some amazing business turn-arounds through inter-departmental cooperation. In turn, the company’s services to its customers improved significantly.

In the late nineties, due to a recession, like last year, there was considerable pressure to cut costs through job cuts and winding up loss-making businesses. Some of us got together with the Managing Director and initiated a project called ‘Enabling Moves’, for minimizing job losses by maximizing redeployment of people from less critical to the most critical jobs. The project required detailed mapping of the potential of ‘surplus’ people and persuading them to relocate to different jobs and persuading their new managers to accept them. Some of these relocated employees had to be given re-training for their new jobs within the organization. Over 100 employees were so redeployed, instead of being sacked. Most of them did exceedingly well in their new jobs. It was the most satisfying experience for me.

In my two subsequent jobs at JK Industries and Associated Capsules, as head of Human Resources, I introduced policies for a humane handling of forced separations instead of arbitrary sacking for minor reasons, avoiding many unjustified separations. This, I believe, is a key role of those responsible for Human Resources in today’s growing ‘hire and fire’ job environment.

In the Indian society, with its huge disparity in incomes between those privileged with good education and good jobs, and the millions who live in misery, an important role of Human Resource professionals is to sensitise company employees about their privileged status and induce in them a sense of moderation of personal greed and a sense of service. With this in mind, when I was in Thermax, I initiated our employees into serving some villages, with the assistance of an NGO called Institute of Cultural Affairs. Over 100 managers and workers regularly visited a cluster of remote tribal villages in their own time to work on projects like helping to bring clean water and self-employment through teaching skills like welding, in which our personnel were trained. Above all, it changed their world view of “how much is enough?” This is an important question to reflect upon in this age of unfettered greed, which was also the root cause of the recent global economic meltdown, resulting in millions of shattered lives around the world.

Jadhav’s father, in the news item above, would agree with this thought.

*Kiran Gandhi is a respected HR consultant and experienced trainer in various forums. After many years with Tata Motors, Thermax, JK Tyres and other companies he now consults independently. He is a trustee of MRA-IofC and a regular facilitator at the Asia Plateau programmes.