Are colleagues family, friends or just teammates?

It is not always practical and logical to consider the workforce as a family, because businesses run on professionalism

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An email sent by Shopify CEO, Tobi Lütke, to the mangers of the Company last August created a lot of commotion and chatter in the HR fraternity. It explicitly mentioned the organisation’s stand on leadership and social issues. However, what struck many as slightly absurd was the CEO’s stand on how the Company views its employees. His e-mail, as sourced by Business Insider, read, “Shopify, like any other for-profit company, is not a family.

The very idea is preposterous. You are born into a family. You never choose it, and they can’t un-family you. It should be massively obvious that Shopify is not a family but I see people, even leaders, casually use terms like ‘Shopifam’ which will cause the members of our teams (especially junior ones that have never worked anywhere else) to get the wrong impression.” His argument is that ‘family thinking’ only makes it hard to let go of poor performers. “Shopify is a team, not a family,” asserts Lütke. That obviously made many sit up and take note.

“Why can’t you have both? That’s what we call non-duality. At IndiGo, we say ‘you are never alone here’. That means, we are here to help and support. Yet, when it comes to making tough calls, we do take them. For instance, we have opened a 13-bed COVID hospital in Gurgaon at a time when the industry is doing so badly. We are spending crores on vaccinations. That doesn’t take away the fact that last year, we had to lay off people. When we did that, we looked after them well, both in terms of monetary compensation and emotional support.”

Raj Raghavan, senior vice president & head – human resources, IndiGo

Sense of belonging vs undue expectations

Many would argue that since they spend a majority of their time working and benefitting a company, it can be considered as their own. Calling the company they work for as their family gives a sense of belonging to the employees. The objective could be to make employees responsible for the welfare of this ‘family’, which in turn, will take care of them. However, going by Lütke’s logic, it also gives rise to undue expectations. After all, an organisation is a business unit and some tough decisions will have to be taken.

If one looks at things objectively, working as a team makes far more sense than working as a family. The latter brings obligations as well. Working as a team, say for instance, a sports team, the team members together achieve goals and when needed, restructure as well. Every action is undertaken for the collective good or with the desire to accomplish a common goal or mission. This puts the employees and the bosses on the same page without anyone going overboard. This also reduces the instances of heart burn or feeling of betrayal because the goal is common – productivity.

When HR Experts were asked to throw light on what they think of Lütke’s e-mail in the Indian context, we received mixed reactions.

Professionalism vs lenience

Nilay Nilay, CHRO, Indian Shelter Finance Corporation, completely agrees with Lütke’s vision. He feels that while a familial approach at the workplace may reflect caring, it does lead to lack of professionalism. Treating an employee as a family member may be good for building trust, but in some situations, it may also lead to taking soft calls professionally or tolerating underperformance and toning down expectations. “It is important to be professional while dealing with employees if one wishes to build a professional work culture. Both employees and employers seek a professional work environment, and that’s true even in India,” points out Nilay.

Nilay Nilay

“It is important to be professional while dealing with employees if one wishes to build a professional work culture. Both employees and employers seek a professional work environment, and that’s true even in India.”

Nilay Nilay, CHRO, Indian Shelter Finance Corporation

Profits vs empathy

Contrary to the above thought, an organisation is also like a family from the limited perspective that it takes care of employees and their families during difficult times, and even supports employees through social security schemes after they retire and so on. While it is right that organisations are commercial, for-profit organisations, what differentiates the good ones from the bad is the amount of empathy they have for their employees; the level of tolerance they have for genuine cases of below-par productivity; the amount of investment they make to reskill employees instead of replacing them at the first instance.

Logic vs emotion

Pradipto Sahoo, HR advisor & consultant, Bank of India, says, “The differentiating factor here is the objective. A sports team carries only members who are able to play well and complement each other, while a family carries all members irrespective of level of contribution. It is also true that holding on to non-performers and/or non-aligned employees is bound to sink the organisation, which would then harm the rest of the employees too. That’s why, there have to be certain limitations to how far an organisation should go.”

Pradipta Sahoo joins Suryoday Small Finance Bank as CPO“The differentiating factor here is the objective. A sports team carries only members who are able to play well and complement each other, while a family carries all members irrespective of level of contribution. It is also true that holding on to non-performers and/or non-aligned employees is bound to sink the organisation, which would then harm the rest of the employees too. That’s why, there have to be certain limitations to how far an organisation should go.”

Pradipto Sahoo, HR advisor & consultant, Bank of India,

He also asserts that the objective of the organisation is profit making and not profiteering. Great organisations ensure organisational growth by taking care of employees’ interests and not at the cost of it. The organisations that continue socialistic activity endlessly, face business risk. Citing an example, Sahoo elaborates, “General Motors was overburdened with accumulated retirement benefits of ex-employees. It eventually went bankrupt because life expectancy increased and the cost of retiral benefits increased severely. Such tough decisions have to be logical and practical, not emotional.”

At a time when everyone is talking about getting closer amidst the difficulties all around, such strong stands on setting boundaries and office bonding/relationships have the potential to alienate bosses from their employees. This, in turn, can hamper productivity.

However, Raj Raghavan, senior vice president & head – human resources, IndiGo, is of the opinion that the Shopify CEO probably does not understand the concept of non-duality.

“Why can’t you have both? That’s what we call non-duality. At IndiGo, we say ‘you are never alone here’. That means, we are here to help and support. Yet, when it comes to making tough calls, we do take them. For instance, we have opened a 13-bed COVID hospital in Gurgaon at a time when the industry is doing so badly. We are spending crores on vaccinations. That doesn’t take away the fact that last year, we had to lay off people. When we did that, we looked after them well, both in terms of monetary compensation and emotional support,” Raghavan enunciates. He insists that one is not independent of the other. If, during tough times, organisations are taking care of their employees and getting closer, they are also making uncomfortable decisions to tide over.

Clearly, Shopify CEO Tobi Lütke’s leaked e-mail to his managers has forced employers to give serious thought to an approach that works not just in the Indian context but international as well.

1 COMMENT

  1. The topic is debatable to the fact that the zone of duality need to be explored by the Indian companies. We have a TATA STEEL – which says, “We Also make Steel”, just this one liner is a statement and vision of TATA Steel. And its needless to say the legacy which they are carrying. On the other hand, the concept of treating organization as a “Business Unit” is okay to the fact that at the end of the day ‘Profitability’ is the common goal but with “People”. An organization is the accumulation of ‘people’ and ‘systems’.
    So, People care has to be there and we HR should not compare this to being a Family.

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