Uncomfortable Questions on Employee Engagement

Uncomfortable Questions on Employee Engagement

Keynote Address on the theme of ‘Employee Engagement’ – Delivered at the 3rd International HR Conference on 4th and 5th February, 2016. [Organised by K. J. Somaiya Institute of Management Studies and Research, Mumbai in association with California State University, San Bernardino College of Business and Public Administration, USA]
Friends,
I feel honoured that I am invited to address this conference. I am informed that this conference will be an amalgamation of contemporary theory and practice in Employee Engagement. Research paper presentation by national and international academicians, research scholars and students apart, talks by Industry experts and consultants would be the heart of the event. The format seems to be unique; I congratulate Dr Swatee Sarangi and her team.
The corporate world is increasingly appreciating the need to base their decisions on evidence and sound theoretical framework. So this conference which will promote research in ‘employee engagement’ is indeed a very welcome initiative, and I congratulate this institution for taking the lead.
I would like to share my thoughts about employee engagement for your consideration. Not just thoughts, but some questions also which have stayed on my mind. I have picked up the following questions for initiating discussion in this address today:
1.    With new forms of organisation and rampant objectionable people practices, which category of employed persons will be selected for study of employee engagement?
2.    Should our primary focus be on building an institution or promoting employee engagement?
3.    Has the leadership conveniently used employee engagement as a substitute for building institutions?
4.    Are organisations really capable of promoting employee engagement?
5.    Do employees own their engagement? 
1.   With new forms of organisation and rampant objectionable people practices, which category of employed persons will be selected for study of employee engagement?
I would like to examine the context in which organisations are functioning today. This is important because new business models and new forms of organisation have emerged in the recent past, and they present a new set of challenges.
Let me present some facts to you;
We know that the taxi-hailing service Uber engages drivers. The number of new drivers sign up are reportedly 50 thousand every month. The number of registered drivers are more than 1,60,000 and the number of Uber daily trips exceed one million!  
Uber claims their drivers are not employees but independent contractors! So Uber, if we have to go by their statement, is an organisation which does not employ anybody but is valued at USD 51 billion! And not just taxis but they have launched Boat and Helicopter service too in some countries.
Yet Uber is essentially an organisation without employees. Or very negligible number of employees. California court has held that drivers are employees of Uber. Even so, these so called employees have so little contact with their alleged employer that I wonder what does ‘employee engagement’ mean to Uber owner and to so called employees. Is it relevant at all?
In India Meru has a similar relationship with their drivers and also has disputes about relationship – whether they are contractors or employees.
Now let us turn to manufacturing sector.
I had published a blog in 2014 giving statistics of permanent, temporary, trainees and contract labour employed in certain big industries in Pune. To put the story in a nutshell the situation is like this: 10% permanent workers and 90% contract/ trainees/ temps – those who know that they will lose their jobs after a certain period of time. Temps lose it when they complete six or seven months, trainees lose it after one or two years and contract labour is persona non grata for the employer.
So which employees are we discussing? Managerial personnel? White collar or privileged blue collar? So when you say ‘employee engagement,’ who are the people you wish to study? Those who are privileged to hold a permanent job or those persons who account for 90 percent of jobs in industry?
Here is another interesting fact: This fact is well known but I am quoting the source so that nobody can deny it. Here is a quote from the story in the Frontline Magazine titled ‘Laws for Automatons’: [I quote] ‘In many automobile companies in Tamil Nadu, there is not a single permanent worker,” Virjesh Upadhyay, BMS general secretary, told Frontline.’ [Unquote]
Against this backdrop may I ask you ladies and gentlemen, when you say ‘employees’, which category of employed persons will you study to make a meaningful research?
Employers Play Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde!
Before we commence our study on employee engagement, I would like to quote what a worker in an auto industry said to me. He said, “Employers play Dr Jekyll to the people on their rolls and Mr Hyde to those who are not.” Shocking, yet it is the disturbing, and uncomfortable truth!
Let us see how this manifests: We know that Flipkart announced the Big Bonanza Sale from Oct 13 to Oct 17 last year. This was a pre-Diwali Sale. Hindustan Times reported that Flipkart sold over a million products in the first ten hours! In other words, one lakh products were sold every hour.
Economic Times reported on Oct 20, 2015 that Flipkart took great care of their employees providing them food, a chance to win foreign holiday, cash prizes. Flipkart also made available facility for massage to the tired bodies of their employees. Oh, how I envy them!
Less than three months earlier, in July 2015, the delivery boys engaged by Flipkart, obviously thru a contractor, had resorted to a strike demanding basic facilities like toilets and coverage under the Employees State Insurance Scheme. That’s how delivery boys get treated on whose efficiency Flipkart banks on heavily.
The comment ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ must be understood in that light. My question to you ladies and gentlemen is: Will your study of employee engagement cover Flipkart contractors’ employees? And the employed persons they symbolically represent?
This is the context of industrial scenario which must be borne in our mind before we embark on the study of employee engagement. Let us discuss the next question.
2.   Should our primary focus be on building an institution or promoting employee engagement?
This question flows naturally out of our discussion so far. Should we build an institution or should we promote employee engagement?
What is ‘Institution Building?’ The sociological explanation which I prefer, is based on the concept of Philip Selznick. Put concisely, if an organization was doing something especially valuable to society – then it should be called ‘institution’.  This is denoted by a simple equation which brings out the difference between an organisation and an institution:
Organisation + Values = Institution

There are personal beliefs or principles by which entrepreneurs create their organisations. They may not use the term ‘values’ but that’s what they do. Entrepreneurs in SME segment have often shown courage to take decisions which touched lives of employees in a positive way, and also set a distinctive culture. It gives them a persona.

HDFC Ltd. was established in 1977 for providing housing loans. This was a difficult area of work because there were rampant corrupt practices. In 2011 HDFC was listed among the 110 world’s most ethical companies. It was the only Indian organisation in that list. [Economic Times march 16, 2011]
This happens when the entrepreneur creates the organisation with values he personally cherishes.
Among the big industries I like Tata Group’s official vision statement “At the Tata group we are committed to improving the quality of life of the communities we serve.” 
Athlete’s Workout: a Metaphor for Institution Building and Employee Engagement
This metaphor of athlete’s workout explains that institution building which is the overarching purpose also requires employee engagement. Institution building is something akin to athlete’s preparation. He prepares his body for running marathon, or for weight lifting, and those decisions lead to making different choices of exercises. There is a purpose, there is a totality of approach. But the athlete also works to develop specific muscles which are essential for his purpose.
I have already mentioned the Tata Vision. It is that vision which made Tata Steel proactively create a relationship with the Union way back in January 1956, that is sixty years ago. It lays down the foundation of industrial democracy at work without using such jargon. JRD Tata is a signatory to this path breaking agreement. Tatas perhaps could have got away with a regular, run of the mill settlement giving wage increase, but they chose to set tone for employee relations in the era when nobody thought of it. I haven’t come across any settlement like that in India, I would like to believe that none exists. That was institution building effort carried out so innovatively!
Tatas are an exception! We see many organisations spending a lot of time, energy and money on developing employee engagement but ignore leading organisation with good values. We are also aware that they are simultaneously propelled by greed to make a quick kill in the market situation. Ethical decisions are not on their mind. Such organisations with all their boasting of employee engagement activities never become an institution. 
This journey of building a great institution is often incremental, not always planned. It is often linked to the entrepreneur’s or leader’s development from businessman to leader with a vision and mission. Yet one conclusion is sure: it is the onus of leadership.
Let us talk about Kingfisher. Vijay Mallya, the ‘King of Good Times’, created Kingfisher airline. We know what happened to it so I am not elaborating it here. I would however make two observations here: [a] his website Kingfisher World does not show vision or mission. You have to go to his flagship company to discover what could probably it be: It is ‘To recognize the value of human assets and be the preferred employer wherever we operate.’ [b] Contrast this with Tatas and also compare their actions in public domain.
So we conclude that the leaders must build an institution as well as promote employee engagement. The primary purpose of promoting employee engagement is to help the leader build a great institution – I would like to remind you of the metaphor of athlete’s workout.
When we ask what the purpose of promoting employee engagement is to managers, the answer is that it increases productivity or helps us get higher ROI. In other words promote employee engagement to make the organisation prosperous. The trouble is that a prosperous organisation is not necessarily valued by people. Remember that the image of Tata Steel [which did not make money in recent years] did not take a beating in spite of laying off 35000 employees and the image of Reliance [which made tonnes of money in recent years] did not improve in spite of employing one lakh employees. The society values institutions and not greedy organisations. Values are important and institution building is the primary purpose which is supported by employee engagement. While focusing exclusively on employee engagement we seem to lose sight of its basic purpose.
3.   Has the leadership conveniently used employee engagement as a substitute for institution building?
Almost every organisation has done a visioning exercise, and they proudly announce it to the world by mentioning it on their web site. That vision remains there; translating it in action requires making and selling some tough choices. It tests the leadership to the hilt. I often feel that employee engagement becomes a substitute for building institution.
And that leads us to another question: Who owns employee engagement? We have to remember that employee engagement and institution building are two wheels of a chariot. So the conclusion is that it is, in ultimate analysis, the leader who owns it.
Why is there so much talk about employee engagement and such scanty evidence of building institutions? The answer is obvious: Institution building is the test of leadership and most leaders would NOT like to get evaluated. The success symbols of leaders are often financial statistics which remain etched in the minds of people. The success symbols are not his institution building activities which neither have high visibility nor are they discreet activities like product launches. So it suits his convenience to get managers to focus on employee engagement while he takes his eyes off institution building. And HR functionaries start believing that HR owns the initiative.
4.   Are organisations really capable of promoting employee engagement?
This question will appear very cynical and provocative. It may not go well elsewhere, but I think I can take the liberty of putting it in a research seminar.
Rhetoric apart, ‘Are organisations capable of really promoting employee engagement?’ is a question that has always kept me thinking. Why does it keep me thinking? Let me explain:
We think in terms of polarities. Like light and shadow go together. Both are essential to get the complete picture. So I have looked at the regrets people have to understand engagement. These are the top three regrets people expressed on their death bed.  They are [a] ‘I did not spend enough time with people I loved’’ [b] ‘I did not do work that I really enjoyed,’ and [c] ‘It was ‘I did not make a difference.’ This study was done by an Australian nurse but this is my summary. I have blogged about it.
What does it tell us? It means: People value building relationships, people like to do work which interests them and people wish to leave a legacy. Since working is a social activity, communication is of critical importance and a common thread in all the three things valued but not done.
Communication as well know is important, and the most important aspect of that skill is the skill of deepening conversations. 
How does one deepen conversations? This question was asked on Quora.com recently and the answer was very insightful – ‘Over time, as two people share more personal information, they build a connection. The typical progression goes like this:
1. Clichés 2. Facts 3. Opinions 4. Feelings
The trouble is that the communication in the industry rarely moves beyond opinions. My experience is that we also tend to jump too quickly to opinions and almost never share feelings. As if they don’t matter. This is important because engagement is based on feelings. This only means that we have to learn to practise empathetic listening. Not just communication which is popularly understood as ability to speak good English. In the industry where most of talk is about tangibles like goals and achievement measured in various statistics, feelings of people are never on the radar.
This takes us back to the question I raised ‘Are organisations capable of really promoting employee engagement?’ With the sentient side of the organisation ignored, skills like ‘deepening the conversations’ placed at a premium, empathetic listening not practised, the organisations’ capability seems to be very doubtful.
Let us look at the metaphors of engagement to explain such underpreparedness.
What’s your metaphor for engagement?
Metaphors matter because they are held subconsciously yet they guide our actions. My conversations with managers in the industry lead me to believe that the metaphor for engagement in their mind is one of a railway engine ‘engaged’ with carriages to make a journey. The compulsive strategy linkage talk which we hear in the corporate world from conference room to canteen only strengthens it. The carriages are dragged and they have so little room for individual movement.
I have often felt that the metaphor for engagement is a ring formed by people holding hands. People face each other and they hold hands. It is touching, and it instantly brings smile. If you have observed people forming a ring, you will also notice that they respond differently to the experience. Invariably they get very expressive immediately after forming a ring. Even in a group like a ring, people experience the activity differently.
Ladies and gentlemen, I urge you to explore what kind of metaphors managers hold about employee engagement and how it impacts their actions.
Experiencing an event is very personal
I am reminded here the famous poem ‘Metaphors of a Magnifico’. The observation the poet makes is ‘Twenty men crossing a bridge into a village, are, twenty men crossing twenty bridges into twenty villages.’ We know that every experience is very personal, each person interprets an event differently. A soldier crossing the familiar bridge which he perhaps crossed as a young boy and getting in the village which is his place of residence will experience crossing of the bridge and entering the village differently than a soldier who has no such attachments. ‘Twenty men crossing a bridge into a village, are, twenty men crossing twenty bridges into twenty villages.’
A single event of acquisition of a company: It excites a manager while his colleague feels the serious threat of losing his job! Experiencing an event is so personal, and moored in our past and our concerns. So we have to find out how people are responding to various decisions, and events over which they may not have control.
This only accentuates the need for touch, listening. Creating fora where people can share their experiences openly without fear is very important. More so in the industry today which is marked by terrible work-life balance and harassment at work.
Fairness and Communication provide the atmosphere for Engagement
The economic climate is such that there are upheavals too frequently. The attention of the organisation is often focused on remedial actions. Employee engagement recedes in the background and is not on the radar screen. This becomes most visible when there are lay-offs.
I am sure that you will recall the furore when TCS gave pink slips to a few thousand employees. It made big news, there were videos, caustic tweets, and secret audio recordings of the layoff decisions. The techies went to the court, and formed union, and even won a reprieve from the Court. A great institution had suddenly become the villain of the piece! The reason was that the process was seen as very unfair by the employees. This event will be remembered and it will take some time for the employees to get over it.
Research indicates that employees appreciate the economic necessities, and do not hold actions like layoffs against the organisations as long as the process is seen as fair.
This only underscores the need to reach out to employees regularly not only when there is a problem on hand. But we do not see much evidence of experimentation of creating meaningful conversations. So my question: Are organisations capable of really promoting employee engagement?
5.   Do the Employees own their Engagement?
A young manager once mentioned that he asked his boss ‘What are you doing to motivate me?’ The new age industries have focused so much on creating the right atmosphere, perhaps rightly so, but it is having an interesting fallout. People often think that motivation must happen to them, engagement must happen to them. And it is to be done by the organisation to them.
I remember an incident in my life. I was thirteen or fourteen year old when I went to a party with my parents. There was nobody of my age there, so angrily I moved to a corner and sat there sulking. My father came over and gave some fatherly advice – the long and short of it was that happiness was a personal decision, and I had to make efforts to make moves to enjoy the party.
People learn this surely. Think of the contract labour, some of them as peons engaged in your office. You will find that some of them show very high level of engagement. Think of the factors loaded against them – they get paid differentially, the facilities offered are not the same yet they are engaged.
We will also notice that the managers for whom they work deal with them with some respect, attend to their issues within the available discretion, and this reinforces the engagement. It depends on the relationships at work, but it also essentially depends on the view the person takes of himself. Didn’t Frankl suggest [Man’s Search for Meaning] that the kind of prisoner one becomes depends on some inner decision, not on environmental conditions alone? There is a last human freedom, available in even the most deprived conditions: the freedom to choose one’s attitude toward one’s suffering. Contract labour may be deprived of so many rightful things, yet those who have exercised freedom of choice stand out as engaged persons.
I have mentioned this extreme case only to put forth the point that engagement is owned by the employee too. The issue is how to encourage it. That again requires conversations, and deepening of conversations.  
Finally….
Friends, I will presume that my purpose is served if my statements have provoked you to identify some areas for research.
I would like to thank the organisers for inviting me to deliver the key note address. I wish you all a very educative and thought provoking seminar ahead.
Thanks,
Vivek S Patwardhan
“What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others.”