Are Industrial Relations Skills Relevant Today

Are Industrial Relations Skills Relevant Today

Trust Mr. Anil Kaushik who is the author of books on labour laws and the President of Indian HR Forum, owner and editor of ‘Business Manager‘ invariably picks up the critical issues for debate. He asked a few questions on relevance of industrial relations skills to many experts, including me. Here is my response to his questions. You can read the entire article here (Note: The access to the article may be available only to subscribers.)

What reasons do you to attribute to the fact that Industrial relation skills which was considered as one of the most desired and pre requisite skill for any HR person to succeed, has now become almost extinct?

I believe that Industrial Relations (IR) skills are NOT extinct. But those skills are required of a different level and proficiency. People think of IR skills as ‘essential skills to manage adversarial stances’ in the organization. Modern day organizations believe that they treat all employees as ‘we are all one.’ (Whether such a belief is practiced or not is a good subject for research). Therefore, they think the traditional IR skills are not required and are useless. Moreover, with the ‘extinction’ of unions, it is possible to run organizations unchallenged. Now the IR skills are required to influence positively all employees.

The IR skills are not extinct if you consider that influencing a group of employees with democratic means is the right way to manage. Those skills are not extinct if you recognize the basic rights of employees. Such actions flow out of ‘Unitarist’ approach ‘which views employment as a relationship between members of a group with a common purpose.’

Essentially, trade unions are dead today, and so the old IR skills have been replaced by new skills, but rights and liabilities of the employer and employees remain intact. 

Have industries committed a mistake in assuming the lost relevance of this people management skill that prompted educational sector to marginalize the subject resulting into producing the new generation of HR managers totally unaware of IR nuances and employment regulations?

Yes, indeed. Every industrial relationship is based on a contract. It automatically creates rights and liabilities. Every industrial relationship is covered by various applicable laws, which too create rights and liabilities. It is possible to ‘procure’ expertise by engaging a lawyer. A trained manager understands that every decision must be a product of considering facts of that case and the applicable law, so he becomes an asset to the organization. It also makes decision making quicker because a manager can quickly evaluate a situation. Moreover, training in industrial relations and labour laws helps develop a liberal and progressive view which in turn helps bring the fairness in play, which is at the heart of harmonious industrial relations.

Do you believe that Industrial relations issues will remain always in industry, may be in different forms? If so, how organizations should address this issue of widening gap and prepare for future on people front? What role can be played by professional bodies in this respect?

Industrial relations issues will remain always in industry though the form and nomenclature will keep changing with times. Where the organization’s policy dictates adoption of ‘Unitary’ approach, the leader becomes responsible to set the standards of behaviour, engagement and participation. Empathetic listening becomes the key, otherwise the ‘voice of employees’ will not be heard.

Essentially organizations (read Leaders by whatever title) ought to understand that almost all people issue are ‘divergent’ problems meaning that there will be more than one ‘right’ solution. That requires excellent skills of dialogues and empathetic listening.

Technology changes have created flux in business organizations, it requires reinventing IR skills.

Do you think growing technology with social transformation of new generation having information blast around them has posed newer challenges for the HR and business leaders to handle IR issues? If so, how do you suggest, Business leaders should take it on?

The growing technology has brought people together. There is an explosion of information. But many leaders of industry are carrying a mindset which has not evolved with times. I have blogged about an industry which just closed the doors without any intimation and threw long serving employees on the streets. Such actions are borne out of fear. Relationships, including industrial relationships must be built on hope and dialogue. With the new technology this is easily possible, but engaging people in meaningful dialogue is a skill. Those who understand this aspect do well. I have also shared two examples (in my blogs) about industrialists who share wealth based on ‘value added’ concept, and they have built healthy organizations. With information blast, we have to find more evolved ways of compensating people as well.

Why most of the young managers prefer Soft HR domain as career rather than focusing on IR ? How do you describe the essentials of IR Skills, New Gen  Managers should  also acquire?

I do not blame young students and managers – they often act out of limited information and guidance. HR is a specialist function, just like that of an accountant or an engineer. Young managers who perform ‘HR Generalist’ roles are also specialists because recruitment, training, compensation, industrial relations and employee engagement which are broadly most important functions require specialist knowledge and skills. Preferring to specialize only in Soft HR without gaining insights in all aspects of HR is like hoping to becoming ENT specialist without getting MBBS degree!

Your word of wisdom for new generation of HR managers in this respect?

My advice is simple, two-fold. First, ‘Listen and Learn’. Once we learn to listen to people, we get on the right track of development. (Hearing is automatic, Listening is a choice!). Investing in one’s learning is the key to progress. There is not a single student who did not carry wrong or ill-formed thoughts while entering the industry. But listening and learning helps us shape out knowledge and intellect. Second, ‘Learning from experience is important but do not make it the sole learning source’. That would be the cardinal error.

Vivek S Patwardhan

“What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others.”