The HR Managers' “Puzzle of Identity.”


A career in HR has several puzzles in store. You decisions have an impact, sometimes great impact, favourable or otherwise, on people's lives. In my career I have often engaged in lengthy discussions about what the right thing to do was.

It takes years to find the right answer, and I realise that it is rooted in what you are. There is a ‘puzzle of identity’ [as Charles Handy puts it] to be solved. Charles Handy comes out with such a clear thinking expressed in simple words about the puzzle of identity – he says that responsibility is the key to identity. It helps us establish our identity. What is the meaning of responsibility? Osho says it is the ‘ability’ to provide appropriate ‘response.’ He has explained it in simple but so apt way.

When Asian Paints lost its Paint manufacturing section in Bhandup [Mumbai] factory to fire, they applied for retrenchment because there was no work that could be given to about 150 out of about 350 workers. There was a suspicion that the factory land will be sold to real estate developers; so it was clarified in a communication that they will be building a new factory. When the permission to retrench was received from the Government of Maharashtra, the workers approached and requested for higher compensation. Retrenchment compensation would have been woefully inadequate. The company gave a compensation which was five times higher than the legal dues.

Contrast this against the Mill Owners’ attitude during the aftermath of the Textile strike in 1982. Let us take the case of Phoenix Mills which has constructed a mall. It is a very popular landmark in Mumbai. This is what a shocking report on Phoenix Mills says:
1995: Yet again, the Management moves to declare the mill as sick and approaches the BIFR. The approved revival scheme allows tax concessions. Management is directed to upgrade machinery and constitute a committee accountable to banks and financial institutions to oversee the modernisation and revival process. Once these tax concessions were approved, no revival scheme was implemented.
23rd April 1998 – The Management applies to the BMC for adding recreational facilities such as table tennis, health clubs and – of course - bowling alleys. On the grounds that its workers are “continuously demanding these facilities, and went on agitation in Jan-98”. Yes – workers demanding bowling alleys, sauna steam baths and billiards tables.
April and May 1998 – Management begins to terminate services of staff across various departments. The processing department is closed abruptly. Second and third shift at the Mills are stopped.
July 1998 – Labour Court issues an order to the Mill to restart closed departments and reinstate workers. Workers allege that just before the orders, Management  had introduced a voluntary retirement scheme (VRS) for retrenched workers. In the meantime Phoenix Towers is constructed over what unions allege was space reserved for a municipal school and a public garden. Not a single paisa from these constructions goes to the workers.
[See: Mumbai Matters: April 19, 2006, ‘Phoenix Mills – ‘Because the story must be told’]

But of course the identity is a question to which we find an answer after some experiences that shake us. Or perhaps shame us! What I mentioned to you was about how organisations dealt with those issues. How did I find my identity? I think that will take many days of introspection to answer the question. But two incidents have stayed on my mind which I will share:

As a Labour Welfare Officer I had to recruit a large number of workers, we were recruiting almost two hundred workers. They were initially recruited as temporary workers. One of them was an albino. Albino is a person who has no pigmentation under his skin so he almost looks white. Albinos are unfortunately victims of many prejudices; one of them is that a person with ‘white feet’ is a bad influence. One of the shop floor leaders came to me and suggested that I should get rid of the Albino. I refused. Then the production managers approached and suggested that I should be ‘pragmatic’ and not raise ‘unnecessary’ issues. Then there was pressure gradually developing from other sources. All this happens in a subtle way as you would know. Finally I relented. I asked him to leave. He sat in my office very depressed, and then left. I could not sleep that evening. I realised that I had acted against dictates of my conscience. I made a resolve that never again I will do anything that I will regret later.

Several years later I was told by Sales Manager that there was a clerk in his establishment who was passing a lot of information to a certain dealer. He was alleged to be a mole of that dealer in our office. I had heard about this earlier too. The din against the clerk’s behaviour was rising and the Sales manager told me that I should sack the clerk. On actual investigation I found that there was absolutely no evidence against him. He had a spastic son so he rarely socialised with his office colleagues. He also came from another State so he became an easy target. The pressure mounted on me but I refused to dismiss the clerk. The Albino experience had prepared me for this eventuality.

We must reflect and learn from our own experiences. Finding one’s identity does not come automatically; the route to discovery often goes through some blunders and remorse. But in the final analysis, personal responsibility is the key to identity. We must decide what do we stand for and what we do not stand for too.

Vivek

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