Part 1….The Context Is Important….

This is the first part of my speech at the HR Meet of a reputed organisation.

The second part will be published after two days.

When Ashish invited me to address this meet, I asked him what subject I should be speaking on. He did not specify anything in particular and that actually suits me.

If you ask me what the subject is, I can only say that it is all about things I always felt very acutely about.

I would like to go back to seventies when we joined the industry. The word industrial relations actually meant industrial dispute. Every IR professional talked about enquiries, charge sheets, court decisions, strikes and lock outs. The situation was so adversarial that if someone were to predict that this will change beyond recognition when you retire, I would have dispatched the person straight to mental asylum. But the fact is that employer-employee relationship has changed, and yes it is today more ‘contribution focused’ than ‘conflict focused.’ Even then we must not mistake ‘silence’ for ‘peace’.

But the new situation certainly has brought opportunities in its wake. There is a greater realisation that the real monster is competition and that can finish the organisation itself, that is to say, both employer and employees alike. Hence the focus on contribution; it is forced by situation. Since contribution can be maximised if we have strong employee relations, so it is time to focus on and build ‘relations.’ I would personally like to hear that we must build relations because ‘you are part of my team or organisation’ rather than giving the reason of improving contribution. But be that as it may, sometimes a good deed is welcome even if it is for a wrong reason.

In any relationship we place greater value on common objective. Toyota has understood this very well. It says in their book ‘The Toyota Culture’ [and I am quoting from the book now] “If the company does have a labour union, both should recognise that the prosperity of the company is the common objective and both must use thorough communication in order to resolve any differences of opinions and build a relationship of mutual trust.” [unquote]

This is a very good statement and we must complement Toyota for stating it upfront. The logic behind this approach is unmistakable. The problem is always in implementation. We have seen that many organisations paid fat bonuses in spite of the organisation making losses. There are many such ways in which mutual trust is sacrificed. So does the employee believe in statements made in Toyota style? No way. He says ‘Does organisation subscribe to my prosperity? You are making no statement about it.’ Our argument as HR Managers predictably is that your prosperity is the result of the organisation’s prosperity. I too may have answered this question in similar way but I have always felt that I have not understood employees’ viewpoint.

The employees’ mindset is difficult to understand because we have never made efforts to understand it. We have never trained our minds to think the way an employee thinks. It is fashionable to ask whether HR feels the pain that CEO feels. This question became so fashionable to ask some time ago that I once retorted that I actually want to see a CEO in pain; I have never seen one in that state.

The fact is that we HR Managers have lost touch with the masses; we have lost touch with the reality in that sense. We do not know how people travel because we travel in company buses or cars. We do not know the difficulty they have in getting children admitted in good schools and in teaching English to them. We have to understand that the employees feel, in many ways, an unprecedented pressure from their families to lead a better quality of life. Let me tell you a true story to highlight this point.

Jayawant Nipurte [18] is a young boy born in a very poor family. His father earns Rs 2000 per month from small jobs, locally called ‘Mistry’ or carpentry. Jayawant’s father has three daughters studying in 10th, 8th and 4th standard in local school. They stay in Shahapur Taluka in Thane District.

Jayawant scored good marks at Secondary School Certificate exam, 81.2% under his circumstances show the intelligence and determination of the young man. With some help he enrolled for Diploma in Information Technology at an institute in Mumbra. Last year he cleared it with good marks again, scoring 80.75% marks.

Diploma Engineering students are allowed to apply to Degree Engineering colleges and if they secure admission, they are placed in second year. So several of his classmates applied for degree colleges for admission. Jayawant wanted to apply for his degree course too, but the hard realities of financial commitments stared in his face. In order to secure admission he would have had to pay Rs. 38,000 for each year, more than one and a half times his father’s annual income. He asked for help. A relative advanced Rs. 5,000. A well wisher advanced Rs. 10,000. His village people collected Rs. 10,000. That made Rs. 25,000, all repayable. It still did not add up to the first year’s fees. Jayawant’s father was moved by the indomitable spirit of the young lad and he sold his buffalo to raise the balance Rs. 13,000.

This story may be extreme but it surely indicates a pattern if you are familiar with ground realities. For a change therefore let us not ask ourselves whether we HR professionals feel the pain that CEO feels; it is time to ask whether we feel the pain that employees feel.

The point I am making is that we have to sensitise ourselves to the context and situation of employees. We have to go an extra mile and give ourselves experiences that make this happen, simply acknowledging employees’ situation at intellectual level will not suffice; it will have to be at experience level. We have to understand that perception is intentional. You have to focus your energy then you ‘see’ things. When we go to a new city, we notice everything because we make efforts; but we walk through our lane like an automaton so we do not notice many a thing. Isn’t this our common experience?

If we want to be successful we will have to understand our employees. To do that means to look at situation their way. The trouble is that we are so preoccupied with our routine operational work that we do not invest in developing our perspective. This is really a paradox because we are the people who have formally studied ‘hear the other party’ as a principle of natural justice!

I asked one of the employees what in his opinion was one good point about Asian Paints. I expected that he will say this is a cool company to work for or something similar. He said he appreciated that the company paid salary regularly on 7th day of each month without fail. I thought it was a kind of joke till I realised that his neighbours did not get their salaries regularly and that he was seeing their plight.

The context is important. The problem is that people rarely tell you the context; it has to be imagined. And we cannot imagine the context unless we are familiar with ground realities.

This is the first part of my speech at the HR Meet of a reputed organisation.
The second part will be published after two days.