Sit-outs and protests amongst the labour class in the manufacturing units are not new to businesses. Through these protests the workers either raise their voices for pay hikes or demand pending salaries. In fact, there has been a rise in employee activism recently, especially in the IT and e-commerce sectors.
In the latest case of employee activism, the employees of a popular American company, Wayfair, have been protesting against the sale of bedroom furniture to a detention centre for children in the US. Not long ago, Google employees’ walkout for the inappropriate handling of sexual harassment cases in the organisation made headlines. Similar cases of employee activism have been seen at Microsoft and Amazon.
Handling labourers demanding higher / pending salaries is different from handling highly skilled and educated employees standing up for a social cause.
According to Ravi Mishra, regional HR head, Birla Carbon, the common formula to deal with employees remains the same—understand them and their demands. Many companies find it very difficult to react to such cases. However, for him, it is the easiest thing to handle.
“In such cases, the HR should take a neutral stand and understand the reason behind the activism,” says Mishra.
The traits in the new-generation employees are changing. They want to work for a company which is doing good business and treats its people well. They want to be a part of an organisation which respects all religions and races. This is what organisations should strive to achieve from now on.
Many cases of employee activism question the ethical grounds on which organisations conduct business. Nihar Ghosh, president-HR, Emami Limited, shares with HRKatha that when he used to work as the head-HR with Johnson and Johnson (J&J), the Company had a formal document laying down the common principles on which the organisation conducts the management and the business.
“This document was created after the Second World War and has existed ever since. This is an area where new-born organisations should learn something from the old companies. Whenever we talked about the HR’s stand in such cases, we used to go back to the document and do what it said,” mentions Ghosh.
Often, in major cases of employee activism, employees take to the streets to express themselves. This raises a serious question about the internal communication and handling of employee grievances.
“In case of employee activism, the HR should take a neutral stand and understand the reason behind it”
We are not talking about small companies, but big MNCs with excellent communication channels in place— big names, such as Google and Microsoft, that are appreciated for their systems and communication channels.
Is the leadership team really listening to the employees?
“The HR is supposed to stay connected with the employees all the time. When a complaint comes, the HR should start working towards a solution and give feedback as soon as possible,” shares Mishra.
Ghosh adds, “We have all the modern-day mechanisms of communication to deal with such problems. In communication, two things are very important— time and discipline. For an organisation, it is very important to address the complaints of the employees adequately and on time.”
Ghosh reveals that in J&J, every two years they used to go back to the employees and question them whether the organisation was able to maintain good ethical standards in business.
“I think, internally, employees should always have a say, and should be allowed to give feedback,” opines Ghosh.
Employee activism takes a big toll on the brand of the organisation. It can manipulate the minds of the hiring managers making them wonder whether to hire people who have an attitude to stand up for the right thing.
“I would be an idiot if I would do that. Only smart people have smart questions which are difficult to answer. And why would anybody refuse to hire them?” questions Ghosh.
“I think, internally, employees should always have a say, and should be allowed to give feedbacks whether an organisation is doing business which is justified on ethical and moral grounds”
Rather than refusing to hire people who question, the organisations should make efforts to build a culture where employees are not given a chance to question the functioning of the management and the business.
The state of employee activism has not reached very serious levels in the Indian IT and e-commerce sectors. Therefore, companies in India still have the time to learn and adapt accordingly.
It cannot be left to HR alone to simply take a call and come up with solutions. It should be a collective effort by the leadership team, with HR only acting as a facilitator.