Bollywood, Unicycle and Industrial Relations

[This article was written for ‘Business Magazine’ and appears in its Nov 2013 issue with a different title.]

Industrial relations are like a Bollywood movie. The ‘formula’ is same, no matter where it is played. There is a hero and a villain and an elusive heroine. There is a fight scene to reach the climax and then there is a group photograph a la AVM movies style!
Like in Bollywood, the trend setting ‘new wave’ or ‘art’ films which raise and explore deep issues of relationship, there are organisations which do it in Industrial Relations. And unlike formula movies, these are not-so-common pieces of work, usually do not have ‘high profile’ actors, but those who are trying to establish in the industry or do it because they love it.
We read about Bajaj Auto, and about Maruti Suzuki, and the like, because the Press enjoys covering it. There is captivating drama in a conflict. The feelings of hostility are on public display. Relationship building on the contrary is like wooing and cooing, which is known only to the players [or so they think]! Many initiatives of good organisations are not known to people because nobody speaks about it. But they exist. And like art films they are on show only at few places, one has to make an effort to find out. For a person in search of inspiration it is not a difficult job.
There are organisations which have done soul searching in their HR meets. Not just presentations. There are organisations which realise that the focus should be on building culture, on developing right work ethic and not just on ‘engagement.’ The questions that they explore and the answers, or more questions which they beget are not easy ones. They also discover what ‘constructive dissatisfaction’ means. There are organisations which decided that there should be no union in their establishment, and when one came on the scene, they decided to follow the ‘maha-mantra’ of building relationship – Be honest, Be open and Establish boundaries! [Believe me that this trend is increasing, I have been working with some of these, but many good organisations are either publicity shy or resist making of case studies. So there are not many well written case studies on positive industrial relations in recent times].
For every such organisation, there are a dozen other organisations that will resist unions, enter in a power game rather than focusing on retaining influence on their employees. Maruti Suzuki and Bajaj Auto are cases in point in my opinion. And for every mature union leader, there are a dozen ‘leaders’ who connive with managements to get rid of unwanted workers. I can certainly mention a few names but only at the risk of inviting libel suits.
Is the archaic law coming in the way of striking good industrial relations? Let us ask ourselves, what really matters in a relationship building – law and rules or perceptions and trust? In Vanaz Engineering at Pune all employees [were asked to and] resigned and more than 50% reapplied for the jobs, and re-joined on reduced salaries. This organisation came out of bad weather and emerged a winner. Were there possibilities for workers to go to court in this case? Yes sir, at every stage, but what held them back was that the action was rooted in trust and confidence. And a commitment to broader purpose. Nobody likes a constraint, certainly not the one imposed by law. Like the hero’s [or heroine’s, why exclude him?] father in movies who says ‘Yeh shaadi nahi ho sakti’, and yet is persuaded at the end to bless them, it is all about perceptions and mindset. 
Let us move away from movies. Let us look at aspirations.
Blue collar workers are buying a two-wheeler in two years of their employment, they wear branded clothes, wear branded sports shoes and are tech savvy. A shop floor leader of a certain engineering company in Pune searched my profile in Google and LinkedIn before meeting me! I thought only placement consultants did it!! The lifestyle changes among white collar employees are indistinguishable from those of managers. They buy a car, visit the same mall, pub, and travel abroad with a tour operator and aspire to be in managerial cadre within a short time. Girls from poor families are wearing western dress [their parents are usually very conservative about women’s dress] to work in malls and that is changing many attitudes and removing taboos. Are we aware of the changes that are happening around us and its impact on aspirations of employees?
An industrial relations manager’s job is unenviable and difficult – on one hand he must be aware of the gradual social changes that become perceptible only in the long run, and on the other hand he must be aware of the vicissitudes of economy and its impact. This is like keeping one eye on microscope and the other on telescope!
Managing industrial relations means knowingly setting traditions through managing conflicts and also building relationship. These are like the two wheels of a bicycle; you move ahead when you keep both wheels running at same speed and also maintain your balance. No one aspect will suffice. People who run ‘unicycle’ – the cycle with one wheel, are found mostly in circus and usually the jokers in the circus do it!
But whoever said that managing industrial relations was easy? And whoever said that easy assignments were the most satisfying assignments?

Vivek S Patwardhan