The Era of Advantage for Unfair Employers is Finished

Mr Visty Banaji addressed the Summit and introduced the theme. His address has, as usual, the mark of clarity of his thought, insights, concise but precise in delivery and his inimitable style. Mr Banaji is one of the most respected HR professionals who has left indelible mark on the culture of the organisations he worked for – Tatas, Godrej and Alsthom. He is an avid reader, an author with a distinctive style and a wonderful person to know. His address is given here, with his permission, enjoy reading….

Introducing the Theme of the Summit
(National HRM Summit 2011 Organized by EFI on “Fair Employers Finish First” on 20 – 21 October 2011 at Hotel Taj President)

1. Honourable Minister for Labour & Employment, Government of India, Shri Mallikarjun Kharge, Mr. Damodaran, Ms. Staermose, Mr. Dubey, Mr.Patil, ladies and gentlemen, it gives me great pleasure to introduce the theme of this summit to you.

2. “Fair Employers Finish First” is among the more ambitious themes the Employers’ Federation of India has adopted for its National HRM Summit. I hope I have not been asked to introduce it on the principle that “Lousy Speakers Should Finish First”. It is only when I look around at the other august personalities on the stage am I reassured that this could not be the motive of my friend, Sharad Patil, in asking this group to speak first.
In seriousness, though, let me share the thinking that went behind this theme:
· I am sure you have all heard the cliché: “Nice guys finish last”. It is sometimes extended to organizations and people say: “Nice companies finish last”. Perhaps this was partly true in the time of licence-permit raj, when it was genuinely difficult to survive while remaining above-board – though I would like to believe that two of the Groups that I worked for did a remarkably good job of just that in those difficult years for business integrity. Well, the licence-permit raj is now behind us and, even if we accept that the environment in those years prompted organizations to adopt ‘short-cuts’, the situation is very different now.
· The public at large – and that includes our customers, investors and, most importantly, present and potential employees – expects the institutions they have to work with and within to be not just ‘functional’ but ‘fair’. We have seen the strong support civic society obtained when it raised issues of governance and probity for the political and bureaucratic machinery of the country. Simply because business and industry have not been subjected to such scrutiny and standards so far, does not mean we will remain permanently exempt from meeting the expectations an enlightened Indian public now has from organizations that operate within the public domain. Even in the US the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ movement is gathering momentum and questions about corporate greed and conduct are being raised in many other developed economies. We would do well to remember that disparities and deprivations are even greater in our country and are sometimes strikingly evident in a single corporation when we include in the reckoning people who work for, but are not on the rolls of, the enterprise.
· In these turbulent times of ever-increasing public consciousness, if we, as employers, do not take it upon ourselves to scrutinize and improve on our record of fairness, we will have no one but ourselves to blame if obtrusive laws and external inspection, interference and oversight bedevil us in greater measure than ever before.
· We felt it fitting that EFI should take the lead insofar as these standards and expectations are about the roles employers should play. That was the origin of the thinking behind the theme for this year’s summit.

3. The question that immediately arose was whether there was a need to take up the theme of employer fairness. Weren’t employers, by and large, fair in any case? A quick examination of how employers have actually behaved (and, of course, there are notable exceptions) did not leave us very optimistic about the general run of employers meeting the higher public expectations of fairness and business ethics:
· The test of fairness comes, not during fair weather, but during difficult times. Here are some of the things otherwise model employers resorted to during the last economic down-turn:
o Mass scale termination of probationers for reasons of business slump rather than individual performance inadequacy.
o Withdrawal or indefinite deferment of firm written offers made on campus to thousands of students.
o Sudden discovery of the magical sound of the ‘bell’ curve and of vast numbers ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’.
o Termination of large numbers of temporary and contract workers who had been engaged for many years in perennial jobs.
If these practices are less prevalent now, is it because these employers have become more fair or because the economic slowdown has receded?
· It had become fashionable to say that Employee Relations was a capability organizations no longer required; that growing economic development would put an end to union militancy and industrial action. Those of us who feared, that growing disparities between individual workers (often doing the same jobs) would lead to more rather than less unrest, were seen as Cassandras. It is unfortunate that, like Cassandra, we today have to stand by, in mourning, as some of the most respected names in industry fall prey to industrial unrest. While I do not wish to comment on specific cases, we have to cognize the possibility that, where industrial unrest gains mass support, in the minds of the employees there has arisen a perception of unfairness having been practiced by the management, in some way, shape or form.
· Nowhere have the disparities of industrial India and the consequential perceptions of unfairness been more apparent than in regard to contract labour. Events of the last 6-8 months have only confirmed the urgency with which the fairness of dealing with contract workers needs to be addressed.

4. The idea of this summit is not to wag a finger at erring organizations but to demonstrate, through live examples, that being fair, like honesty, is indeed the best policy and that those who adopt it really do rank first. This should not be such a startling discovery for those who have studied industrial development in our country. In India, it is not the robber barons who have survived. Our industrial houses with the greatest longevity are also those which have demonstrated the greatest fairness and concern for employees since their inception. Our industrial history, thus, contradicts the myth that “fair employers finish last”. It would be truer, in our case, to say that “fair employers last longest”
For this summit, therefore, most of the organizations that have been chosen to share their experiences, are those that have excelled not only in the fairness of their practices but have delivered remarkable business and financial results concurrently. They are the living proofs of our claim that “Fair Employers Finish First”.
For this reason, it is fitting that those employers who have achieved true progress in Employee Relations should be commended at this summit. This is the first time recognition of this nature is being bestowed by the Employers’ Federation of India and we hope that it will be an encouragement and inspiration for more employers to embark on the path of fairness and ER excellence that is not just the theme of the summit but the positioning for EFI going forward.

5. The case studies of organizations that have been successful, not in spite of, but because of being fair employers have been broadly divided into four parts:
· In the first part, we will learn how fair employers deal with employees at the bottom of the pyramid as well as how they develop, consult and value these employees for their individual worth.
· We cannot hope to have sound employee relations without the active cooperation of unions, freely chosen by employees. The second part of the summit, therefore, will give us learnings from fair employers who have partnered with their unions for the prosperity of the enterprise.
· As I have stressed earlier, Contract Workers can be the source of much unfairness and industrial unrest. In part three, therefore, we will share the findings of an EFI / ILO study of best practices in managing contract labour. We will also hear how fair employers are trying to find equitable ways of dealing with this knotty issue as well as the views of union and labour department stakeholders on this burning topic.
· Whether it for reasons of land acquisition, environmental impact or any other, large industrial organizations are more than ever inextricably linked with the lives of the communities in which they are embedded. The fourth part of our summit will present fair employers who have gone far beyond the demands of the law or the clauses contained in their licences or land-acquisition contracts in serving and providing a better way of life to their adopted communities.

6. At the end of the summit, we hope you will be convinced that:
· Not only do “Fair Employers Finish First” but the “Era of Advantage for Unfair Employers is Finished”
and that
· The Employers Federation of India can and must provide leadership to employers to adopt the path of fairness with conviction, passion and speed, which, in turn, will bestow a new sense of purpose to the Federation.
Visty Banaji