The Ethical Dilemma of Compassionate Employment

I have witnessed the fire at Tarangan Complex as I stayed there with my son and his family on the fateful night. There was a fire on the 14th floor on Oct 18th morning. Six firemen got trapped in an elevator. They lost their life! [I have already blogged about this on my other blog].

Thane Municipal Commissioner has announced a compensation of Rs. 500,000 to the family of each fireman. [Link]. The Government of Maharashtra has announced a compensation of Rs. 200,000. It is indeed a very good gesture notwithstanding the political motives. [Link]

One of the TV channels [Zee 24 Tass] showed Mr. Jantre, the Thane Municipal Commissioner promising jobs to the next of kin. This comes easy to a political leader but for an HR professional it poses a big dilemma: Whether to offer a job to a kin on compassionate ground.

I have worked for a Tata group organisation and have seen such compassionate employment. The entire atmosphere is so emotionally charged following death of an employee that it becomes very difficult to think dispassionately to arrive at a decision. There are good many points in favour as there good many against the proposal of compassionate employment. On the positive side we will see that it is based on ‘Care’ principle; an organisation must care for its employees particularly in a country like India where social security system is so weak or non-existent. If we are to imagine ourselves in the shoes of the bereaved family we will readily see this as the best and most comforting action.

On the other hand, employing a kin means very often employing a person without checking his or her competence. Once this is established any subsequent complaint about non-performance is not tenable at all and managers often find it unacceptable. Nobody wishes to be recognised as having entered an organisation, not on merit, but on compassionate grounds as a ‘second citizen’; sometimes high level of unemployment leaves very little choice for people but to accept it. Total and unconditional job security [at least perceived so] produces not a very responsible behaviour from the person employed on compassionate ground.

There are organisations which refuse to get carried away by the wave of sympathy. They offer hefty compensation that fetches the widow of the deceased employee an amount equal to his pay by way of interest. Some more help is offered sometimes to pick up the tab for child’s education but they give a firm ‘no’ to employment. Actually this arrangement may appear as very ‘cold’ treatment of the matter but it is more dignified. Organisations who choose this seemingly cold option also ask whether they can repeat this favour in every such case when employee dies in harness hereafter. The decision of employing a kin, even in a single case, becomes the rule, and thereafter it leaves no room for ‘discretion’.

Managers get caught in this dilemma of showing the value they place on nurturing, and on creating a rule. Such clash of polarities is inevitable. The process of handling it deftly has a telling effect on culture. This is a situation where both the answers are right, and none wrong, but why and how it is arrived within the organisation makes the difference.