Whose Job to Influence Employees, Mr Bajaj?

This is what Rajiv Bajaj said when told that the Bajaj workers union says that ‘financial hardship was a non-issue’: “Being unaware of matters internal to their organisation (Union) I can’t tell how much of this bravado is for public posturing and how much of it is actually true; nevertheless, my primary concern is not whether the union lacks resources or resolve, but whether they possess the intellect and the attitude to know and to do that which is in the long-term interest of their members in these difficult times.” [Emphasis supplied]. [See BusinessLine July 29, ‘Prepared for the long haul, say Bajaj workers’]

We know that the Chakan plant, like many other new plants in Pune employed Diploma Engineers. They are employed with the belief that a more learned operator would be more ambitious, desiring quick rise in the organisational hierarchy and therefore more amenable to the influence of the management.

There is some merit in this presumption. But it is just [less than] half of the story. The fact is that attitudes of people are shaped by their experiences. Organisation culture makes a huge difference. It creates the loyalties. We saw that in the Indian Hotels story on facing terrorist attack. And not too far away from Bajaj is ‘Vanaz.’ Vanaz Engineering. It is a landmark. If you tell an auto-rickshaw driver in Pune that you wish to go to Vanaz, he will take you there without requiring any further guidance. Why is Vanaz a landmark?

In a sharp contrast to Bajaj, the great entrepreneur-owner of Vanaz Engineering Mr Khandekar achieved what may be called unthinkable. Vanaz which made and marketed a Gas Cylinder valve had a near monopoly. It followed very ingenious and very progressive policies of employee relations. It was a great company to work for. But its fortune

turned on its head when Rajiv Gandhi’s government allowed imports of an Italian product. This saw Vanaz Engineering taking nosedive and it became nearly bankrupt. There were 950 workers and the company then could not afford so many. So Mr Khandekar suggested that all should resign and reapply to the company! That so because he had to redefine their service conditions which were the best in town in the eighties. The company wanted 260 workers but 460 applied and were recruited. The company had no money to pay legal dues of those who left, but it promised and yes, eventually these were paid with 14% pa interest. Since Maharashtra Bank refused to advance loan, over one hundred workers obtained personal loan of 15 Thousand [this was in 1987] and handed over cash to the company!

The company recovered and is prosperous again.

The company has negotiated some very tough settlement with union on variable pay which many would have shied away from doing. There was a scheme which was not serving the agenda it was created for, so the company scrapped it and renegotiated it. That was a very difficult settlement with its union. The company is on its road to be a model employer again. It employs 10 visually challenged, and hearing impaired workers. It has helped employees develop a housing colony.

All this was possible because the employees admit that the though Mr Khandekar was a very difficult man to deal with, he was one who believed in and practised fair play. He believed in transparency and openness. More than that, they admire him for being a role model to all employees irrespective of status. And they believed in his leadership.

How does an employer get allegiance of employees? What makes employees take personal risk for the sake of the organisation? Is the process of winning over only about ‘communication’ or is it about being a role model?

In Vanaz everybody was a member of the union with the exception of the Directors!! Yet many achievements have been to the credit of both the union as well as Mr Khandekar which unfortunately has gone unrecognised. 

These may be issues for research, but we know from the Vanaz story that an employer who thinks that he can influence the employees to think and act for it can do it. It surely requires will and skill, and in that order!

Let us come back to where we started. The issue is not whether the worker leaders “possess the intellect and the attitude to know and to do that which is in the long-term interest of their members in these difficult times.” The real issue is whether Rajiv Bajaj has the will and skill to influence and align employees’ minds to long term organisational interest. 

Mr Khandekar, the man who did it, the Guru, is not sitting too far away from you, Mr Rajiv Bajaj!

PS: Photograph of Mr Khandekar titled ‘Drashtaa Udyojak’ [Visionary Employer] on the walls of Vanaz Employees’ Union’s office.