Pricol was recently awarded the National Award for Best Industrial Relations Practices. I immediately contacted Mr Malar Vannan Fernando, their Chief People Officer.
Appearances are deceptive as they say. Malar is a tall and well-built man who was a junior state level hockey player, and is a fitness freak. You may mistake him for a tough-talking bully – nothing can be farther from truth. Malar, in fact, is a soft spoken affable gentleman. That may be the key to his success.
He narrated Pricol story, he explained how he led rebuilding of industrial relations at Pricol. I have recorded his very brief video, you can access it here. Pricol and Malar deserve accolades for their constructive work.
How to rebuild industrial relations when they touch nadir? That’s the question. Here are my thoughts inspired by Pricol’s success, but not necessarily based on practices adopted by Pricol.
Introspection is the first step
Asian Paints workers at Bhandup factory went on a long drawn strike  which was the result of a long battle between two unions. When the strike was over, workers returned to work accepting all management’s terms, a meeting was called by the Director. ‘Did we fail to take any action? Could we have averted the strike in any way?’ were the questions posed to a small group of senior managers who shouldered responsibility for industrial relations.
When you handle a long drawn strike, the emotions run so high that it is impossible to imagine what management could have possibly done to avert the strike. But the question gave two messages, insights actually, clearly: [a] It takes two to tango – you can’t say a strike was completely forced on us and we were helpless, and [b] You are paid to run an establishment and every effort must be made to keep the wheels moving.
This step destroys the inertia of mindset; it destroys ‘status quo.’
Reflect we must! When the two truths which I have mentioned above are realised [rather internalised], we open our mind; we understand that we must understand their truth, so we must listen empathetically. So the next step is….
‘A conflict changes the way all employees, including workers, see the organisation.’ It is common to find that managements get emboldened to do things they would not have otherwise done before the strike. A conflict changes the way individuals look at themselves. Supervisors who are often like sheep before the strike transform in to tigers after the strike! If the mission is to rebuild relations, it is important to bear this in mind. Balancing between what not to change, like certain aspects of work culture, and changing certain aspects, like non-implementation of agreed terms of settlement, becomes essential. While people can’t be allowed to rule with a whip as they tend to do after a strike, compliance to certain aspects must be ensured. This is not easy, but it is necessary to rebuilding relations.
It can only be done effectively by first listening to employees. And listening empathetically, for their ‘truth’ must to be understood. These two steps prepare managers for rebuilding equations among all groups and individuals. And at this stage one must understand that personal initiatives are important, but it is equally important to set up systems to listen to people’s voice.
Listen to People’s Voice
What do employees expect from their employer? This is a question which is rarely discussed. The ‘control’ freak managements take pride in creating an organisation which is a ‘great place to work.’ In practice, many of these organisations are otherwise. That is because managers work to create an organisation which employees will love, rather than co-creating an organisation. Employees, irrespective of status, expect four things from their employer. Individual Growth, Bright Future [for the organisation as well as themselves, basically also meaning strong leadership], Positive Workplace and Fair compensation policies. When we listen to people’s voice, we are able to identify which of these four aspect needs working on. Converting a concept in an action plan is the test of HR Manager’s abilities.
To listen to people’s voice it becomes necessary to create process. Anonymity must be ensured, at least till the dust settles down, so that we can catch the exact problem and its nature. Very often organisations create ‘town hall’ meetings but these are not effective in rebuilding relations because it is usually a top down communication. When we wish to listen to people’s voice it must be clearly an upward communication.
Experimentation is the key
I asked an HR Consultant who had done many LSIP or Large Scale Interactive Process can be used to rebuild industrial relations. She answered it in the affirmative adding some pre-work will be essential. Several new techniques are invented now for consensus building and collective thought which can help us rebuild the relations. Imagination is the only constraint.
And finally, we must appreciate that relationships whether in personal life or in our corporate roles, must be built proactively. ‘Proactive’ is the key word. It is so easy to become reactive while managing industrial relations, but it must be avoided.
Except terrorists, nobody wants to be at war perpetually, certainly not the employees. For relationship building, therefore, there is always a hope.
Vivek S Patwardhan