From the diary of an IR professional

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How the rules and practices in IR change with the individual or the manager.

We often shrug off individuals – very hypocritically so – as if they do not make a difference to the organisation. The fact of life is that even a single effective person can make a huge difference to the organisational effectiveness. In the history of IR, we have had umpteen examples of individuals – Datta Samant, Russi Modi – who have changed the course of establishments.

Not just individuals, even small efforts bring in a sea of change.

CASE-I

I remember an incident on the first day at a new company that I had joined. I was with the finance head of the company at the company headquarters (HQ). That is when the finance head got a rather panic call from the head of the plant, which was around 1,400 km away from the HQ.

The plant head conveyed that the union leaders along with a few workers were at his office and demanding advance wages against long-pending wage settlement.

In an earlier instance, the plant head had verbally communicated to the workers that advance wages will be dispersed by a particular date.

Now, the worker’s union was insisting that a written memo be put on the notice board for all workers to see but the plant head was reluctant to do so.

Credibility is the foundation of IR.  It establishes and fixes the intent of content of our discussion.

After hearing him out, the finance head asked the plant head to consult me.

I was keen to know whether the company was all set to meet the promised deadline for disbursement of advance wages.

The plant head was confident on the date of disbursement.

I asked him a simple question – Why is it then difficult for you to send out a formal notice?

He replied that there was ‘nothing wrong’ in informing everyone, but he did not wish to set a precedent.

Then I told him that there was no harm in setting a precedent, if we really meant what we said.

Also, I tried to explain to him that if we avoid giving a written confirmation after a verbal assurance, the workers are bound to doubt the company’s intention, and in the process, we would end up losing our credibility. I insisted that he put out the circular on the notice board immediately.

After a few months, I happened to visit that same plant. I was glad to see the plant head relieved of the worker union problems.

I asked him again about the reason behind his reluctance to issue a written circular to the workers. He revealed that on past occasions, he had been pulled by the senior executives at HQ for such written communications.

We use a smokescreen to turn things in our favour without having thought through on its natural course or the aftermath.

I realised that due to this practice, the plant head had lost his personal credibility among workers and also the local IR. All of these made him extra cautious in his dealings with the workers.

I believe credibility is the foundation of IR. For that matter, in any relationship, personal credibility of the handler is ‘the’ key to conclude discussions either way.

Credibility establishes and fixes the intent of content of our discussion. It was due to the credibility of Yudhishthir that the great warrior and guru, Dronacharya believed (though erroneously) that his son Aswathama had been killed.

All along, in my own IR journey of over 30 years, no trade leader ever insisted on me giving written assurances, simply because they were sure that I said a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ only when I meant it.

The reason why we lose credibility is because In my view, such practices are of myopic vision and a short-term solution to the problem.

IR is like a game of open board chess. We must play it eye to eye. Each individual understands and believes the true expression of frankness, simply because it is her/his own intelligent take.

I remember a famous quote by Martin Luther King Jr. and judge him as it is, “I won’t have any money to leave behind. I won’t have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind.” And so he did. There was truth in his statement.

Some people think that these are the mandates of normal situations. However, crisis management involves a lot of instant situational compromises.

CASE-II

There is another instance from my stint at a sugar factory. Before I move ahead, it is important to note that IR in the sugar industry is not just limited to employees, but extends to farmers as well, and thereby, to the politicians.

It so happened that the MD of our company, was on a plant visit. He stayed in the guest house, which was located inside the premises of staff quarters which was again close to the factory.

‘Command by demand’ or ‘demand by command’ is a commander attitude that IR, or for that matter, any other relationship, does not acknowledge as inspiring.

When local leaders learnt about the MD’s plant visit, they stormed the staff colony along with hundreds of farmers.

As head of HR, I rushed to the guest house where the agitating farmers had gathered. They demanded that the MD should come out and meet the farmers in the open.

I spoke to the MD’s assistant who conveyed that the MD was willing to meet these people. The plant head and other senior executives of the plant concurred with the idea that the MD should meet these leaders to pacify them.

However, I was uncertain of the behaviour of the mob and was worried about the fact that they had pushed their way through security and reached the staff colony — a residential area.

I addressed the local leaders and after the icebreaking pleasantries, I conveyed that the MD was willing to meet all of them, but only at his office at the plant. I also made them realise that this wasn’t the apt place for any such discussion as it was a residential area with women and children around.

The local leaders and the farmers realised the mistake and accepted the offer. I just did not want to set a precedent of having such meetings in a residential area.

I also assured them that before they reached the office, I would myself be there to arrange their meeting with the MD. I also tried to convince them that all of them would not fit into the MD’s cabin in one go and therefore, they should meet him in groups of 25.

By this time, I could sense that they had developed faith in me.

The success of this episode rests on several factors, including— accessibility and genuineness of the MD to meet all; concern of MD towards farmers, the stakeholders; concern for the privacy of employees and their family members in the colony; avoidance of the risk of meeting an unpredictable and excited mob of hundreds in the open; meeting all in limited batches within the secured environs of the office; establishing the preference for planned meetings; amicably distracting the pressure tactics of leaders; buying time to prepare and prevail over emotive gushes; and most importantly, articulating the authenticity of the management.

‘Command by demand’ or ‘demand by command’ is a commander attitude that IR, or for that matter, any other relationship, does not acknowledge as inspiring.

One cannot rule perennially through money power or muscle power. The only sustained rule of game is the ‘moral power’ that gets reflected through ‘legitimacy of expression’.

However, one may say that it’s easier said than done. It is tough because in our impatience, we often get tempted to take short and simple paths to our destinations. Believe me, there is no better way than to be truthful.

(The author is plant HR Head, Hero MotoCorp).