Strikes, shut-down of operations, sit-in protests and other such disruptive acts are usually associated with factory workers or labourers, or the so-called blue-collar employees. This has been the case from the times of the industrial revolution.
However, over the years, with the implementation of labour laws, the volatility of these industrial workforces and the frequency of such unrests have decreased. This reduction in disruptive activities does not necessarily mean that employees are more satisfied and less disgruntled. It is just that, with the evolution of industries such as information technology, aviation and other services industries, a new breed of employees emerged — the white-collar workers! Their collars may be white, but that doesn’t make them an eternally happy or fully satisfied tribe. Unrest amongst this lot of employees is not uncommon. Take for instance, the recent silent protest going on at IndiGo Airlines.
Most of the ground staff and technicians at IndiGo went on mass leave to express their dissatisfaction with the management. Media reports say that these employees, who called in sick, were busy attending job interviews with Air India, Jet Airways and Akasa Airlines, which are on a hiring spree.
“I believe that understanding the needs of white-collar employees is much more difficult, and therefore, it is far more complex to negotiate with them”
Tuhin Biswas, CHRO, Emami
It is true that the aviation Industry has not seen much profitability ever since the pandemic struck. While most people had to take salary cuts, a significant number were laid off. At IndiGo as well, all staff members took a salary cut. What irked them was that their salaries were not restored to pre-pandemic levels even when the aviation sector started picking up. From pilots, to cabin crew, ground staff and technicians, everyone has been upset over their meagre remuneration, and hence, they decided to protest in their own way.
Any discussion on the unionisation of IT and services sector employees in India is incomplete without mention of the uproar over the non-compete clause at Infosys. Even in the banking sector, many PSU bank employees have protested against the privatisation of the sector by calling strikes.
In the current scenario, HRKatha asked some HR leaders, ‘Who are more difficult to negotiate with — the white-collar staff or the blue-collar ones?
The clear and unanimous answer was — “The white-collared employees are more difficult to negotiate with”.
Why white-collar employees are hard nuts to crack
All HR leaders jokingly mention how difficult it is to deal with the salary issues of white-collar employees at the negotiation table. With so many instances of recent unrest, most HR leaders were able to relate with such situations.
Human resource leaders believe it is very easy to understand the needs of blue- collar employees, as their requirements are quite basic and are mostly related to wage and basic hygiene amenities. When it comes to white-collar employees, however, the demands vary.
“Blue-collar workers have very straight-line demands, of which all HR professionals are aware. It is like a question paper where we know what questions to expect and also know the answers to the same”
Pankaj Lochan, executive director & group CHRO, Jindal Steel & Power
Background and education: We need to understand that both sets of employees come from very different backgrounds. The blue-collar community comprises members who are not highly educated, with their needs always revolving around meeting their basic living standard. However, white-collar employees are usually highly educated, very aware and have very different needs that go beyond just their salary.
Needs beyond salary: For white-collar employees, their standard of living, career progression, work-life balance, job satisfaction, growth in terms of rank/position and income are all very important. They seek to be decision makers driving change in the organisation, rather than just mere employees.
“Blue-collar workers have very straight-line demands, of which all HR professionals are aware. It is like a question paper where we know what questions to expect and also know the answers to the same,” shares Pankaj Lochan, executive director & group CHRO, Jindal Steel & Power.
As per Tuhin Biswas, CHRO, Emami, it is the silent protests amongst these white- collar employees which are hard to deal with. “I believe that understanding the needs of white-collar employees is much more difficult, and therefore, it is far more complex to negotiate with them,” tells Biswas.
Perks and benefits: “The white-collar employees seek all kinds of amenities, be it the work-from-home benefit or the extra perks such as travelling allowance. Not only do they have more demands, but they are much more aware about their own rights and the pain points of their employers,” points out Anil Gaur, CHRO, Akums Pharmaceuticals.
Value and demand: Lochan mentions that it is on the white-collar class that the real business depends on. Employers do not want such people to leave. Lochan classified white-collar employees into two categories. The first one comprises those who are running after money. “It is easier to deal with this set of white-collar employees as long as they are paid as per industry standards. If someone pays them more, they just leave. Employers need not really worry about this category, because they will anyway leave at some point, even if they are given a raise,” asserts Lochan.
“The second category comprises those who care about their careers. It is this lot that employers need to worry about. They are not much concerned about their salary in the early stages of their career. Rather, they seek assurance of the right learning and career-development path, which will lead to leadership positions in the future,” explains Lochan.
“If one stays as real and genuine as possible with white-collar employees, things will remain calm”
Anil Gaur, CHRO, Akums Pharmaceuticals
He further believes that this is the class of employees from where the future leaders can be picked. “Negotiations with them are what employers are most afraid of losing. That is another reason why they are more difficult to deal with,” says Lochan rightly.
Does IR experience matter in negotiating with white-collar employees?
Human resource experts believe that negotiating with white-collar employees is a much more evolved HR challenge. It has emerged as a new problem for HR professionals since the instances of unrest amongst these employees are more visible now.
“It is essential for HR professionals to understand their employees. It is a difficult skill, but one that must be mastered nevertheless,” says Biswas.
Lochan believes that industrial relations (IR) has become passé now. The new HR leaders who want to make a difference are the ones who come with great knowledge of organisational design or possess organisational development (OD) skills.
Explaining further, Lochan says that OD skills allow the professionals to understand the different structures of the organisation, vertical and horizontal. They are then able to provide employees a clear path for career development. “And nothing less than a five-year road map will work for these employees,” states Lochan.
Anil Gaur believes in practising the mantra of authentic leadership in such cases. “If one stays as real and genuine as possible with these white-collar employees, things will remain calm,” he feels.
Dealing with white-collar staff unrest is a much bigger and complex issue for HR professionals.
As the HR experts admit, no one has a straightforward answer to the problems of white-collar staff, but that only means that the HR / the employers need to equip themselves to deal with such challenges ahead.