at HR Meet of Mahindra & Mahindra on Dec 18, 2013
[This is the Second part of my speech “Making our
Workplace Competitive, Fair and Inclusive.” It focuses on ensuring
fairness at the workplace. The third part will follow soon. The first part of my speech focused on making
the workplace ‘competitive.’]
The theme for my
talk is “how to make our workplace competitive, fair and inclusive.” I beg to
submit that the answer is “Promote dialogue and sensitivity within the
organisation – the latter through ‘appreciation of reality.’” In this second
part let us discuss how we can ensure fairness at workplace.
Fairness is one
word that goes hand in hand with justice. And this is a danger zone! Noble
laureate Amartya Sen has written about this subject. I must confess at the
beginning that my understanding in this area is still ‘developing,’ yet I will venture
to make some observations to kick up a good debate.
Let us not confuse between
‘fairness’ and ‘justice.’
Fairness and justice are different concepts. Justice is concerned with
morality – what you must do to conform to the ideal of morality. But it is not
necessary that you do what is commendable to do. For example, we ensure that
contract labourers are paid minimum wage. That is justice. But it is not
necessary that we have to ensure that they get better than that over the years.
Paying them extra, more than minimum wage, is good to do but not ‘essential’ to
do to conform to the concept of justice.
Fairness on the other hand brings
in the ‘factor of control.’ If you give more than minimum wages to contract labourers [it may even be
value based] then you are taking a decision to that effect, and the control
lies with you. When we reimburse medical expenses of an old or ex-employee over
and above his entitlement, we are being fair, and we have taken a position
based on what is in our control.
But there is another factor which complicates the
matter. Let us talk about it.
Rule of Law and Rule of Life
As Fritjof Capra says “organisations are social
institutions created for specific purpose such as making money, they are also
communities of people who interact with each other and build relationships.” It
makes them democratic institutions.
People have duties to one’s family, one’s
community. This is called the ‘rule of life.’ In contrast the administrators
have duties which reflect higher and universal ideals. This is called the ‘rule
of law.’ It is said that democracy emerges from the contradiction between the
The most glaring and glittering example of this
contradiction between rule of life and rule of law, in my eyes, confronted
Nelson Mandela. With apartheid policy, and with state run terrorism of South
African Government, several black people had simply vanished. The families of
the victims wanted revenge when apartheid was given up, the white community or
those who perpetrated violence under the State orders wanted amnesty. Nelson
Mandela came up with Truth and Reconciliation commission which granted amnesty
under certain conditions. This is a beautifully balanced concern of rule of law
[which is rational and impartial] and rule of life [which has its roots in
When we talk about reservation or quota for a
community we are again battling with the same issue. Rule of Life versus rule
In the organizational context this issue manifests
in many ways. In an extreme case, that of terrorist attack on Taj Hotel, the
Tata group went much beyond its legal liability and handled it so magnanimously
that we called it ‘more than fair.’
I know of a jewellery manufacturer who employs
over a thousand workers, mostly ladies. Working in SEEPZ he could have easily
laid off any number of employees without a problem in 2008 when going was very
bad. But recognising the hardship his employees, mostly ladies, will be put to;
he decided not to lay off anybody taking a direct hit on his profits.
In 1996 Asian Paints lost its entire paints manufacturing
facility to fire. The Government granted permission to retrench 160 workers.
That was legal requirement. Complying with the law, that is to say paying only
retrenchment compensation, would have been ‘just’ but not ‘fair’ because it
would have been too meagre an amount for workmen to retire with. But both the
parties met to decide a good compensation to workers who could be no longer
employed. The hit was about over five times the retrenchment compensation. This
again is a case of rule of life and rule of law. And the role trust can play in
So the theme that emerges is that if we want to be
seen as practicing fairness, we have to balance between rule of law and rule of
life, or in other words, between rationality and emotionality. That is the way
we can be seen as fair and win trust. And trust is won by four actions [a] straight
talk, [b] empathetic listening, [c] making a commitment and [d] being reliable.
In the day to day corporate life there are
numerous dilemmas posed to the HR manager, mainly in the arena of performance
and commensurate rewards. But the solution, to my mind, lies in the same
strategy – win the trust.
The game of fairness often raises a fundamental
question about employers’ liability. In the eyes of employees it is always
blurred. A typical Indian employee expects his employer to help and support him
in several ways. Managing expectations is an inevitable part of the problem of
being fair. And it can be done only through some straight talk, empathetic
listening, and making and keeping commitments.
Interestingly, we are finding that a part remedy
for making workplace competitive as well as fair is the same – it is to have a
meaningful dialogue. In the case of making workplace fair, it takes the
additional factor of making and keeping commitment.
But none of this works if HR functionaries do not
act as crusaders and if the CEO is not an evolved leader. Nowhere does the
leadership get exposed as in the considerations of fairness.
I was told by a senior manager in Nashik that they
recruit ITI and Dip Engineers as trainees or apprentices. They work there for
one year when their contract of traineeship automatically comes to an end. ‘Where
do they go?’ I asked. ‘Oh, they go to Bosch, then to Kirloskars and then to Tata
Motors’ was the response. I checked whether those organisations also take them
as trainees to which the reply was in the affirmative. In another organisation,
open full shift is run exclusively by trainees and the other shift by permanent
workers. It is an auto industry and the jobs of ‘tackling engine’ which weighs
about 50 Kg as well as ‘chassis punching,’ both involving hard and heavy work
was given to trainees. The permanent worker had five trainees who would do this
work in their shift.
The number of trainees in each unit of auto
industry can be counted in hundreds and the obvious exploitation happens
systematically. When it comes to contract labour the situation is equally
shocking. It is quite common to find the same job being done by the permanent
workers as well as by contract labour. The Gujarat Government is knowingly
turning a blind eye to the issue of contract labour. In the textile industry in
Gujarat workers still get ‘single’ overtime! In Surat the wages of workers are
fixed with clear understanding that he will work twelve hours a day.
Do you think this picture can change with insensitive
unions and HR functionaries? Who can stop such practices? Unions and HR
personnel in such industries have one aspect in common – they have become numb
to the reality of exploitation and objectionable practices. What ‘fairness’ are
we talking about without having ‘crusaders?’
It will take a sensitive person who is in touch
with realities of situation to rise and bring about change. The issue is also
how HR functionaries purposefully attempt to understand reality – do they attempt
to find out how their own lowest cadre of employees live and how their contract
workers live. For sensitising oneself, there is no substitute to observing
The reason why I am writing about this is not to
blame my brother HR functionaries, but to draw attention to the fact that trouble
brews in such circumstances [as we saw in the case of Maruti] and the cost of
such a strife is immeasurable. Lack of sensitivity can only compound the
Having said that, I come to the statement [“Promote dialogue
and sensitivity within the organisation – the latter through ‘appreciation of
reality.’”] which I made at the beginning of this talk in the hope that you will appreciate
Labels: Contract Labour, Exploitation, Fairness in practice, Justice, reality check, rule of law, rule of life, trainess