Keynote Address on the theme of ‘Employee Engagement’
Delivered by Vivek S Patwardhan at the
3rd International HR Conference on 4th and 5th February, 2016
[Organised by K. J. Somaiya Institute of
Management Studies and Research, Mumbai in
California State University, San
Bernardino College of Business and Public Administration, USA]
honoured that I am invited to address this conference. I am informed that this
conference will be an amalgamation of contemporary theory and practice in
Employee Engagement. Research paper presentation by national and international
academicians, research scholars and students apart, talks by Industry experts
and consultants would be the heart of the event. The format seems to be unique;
I congratulate Dr Swatee Sarangi and her team.
world is increasingly appreciating the need to base their decisions on evidence
and sound theoretical framework. So this conference which will promote research
in ‘employee engagement’ is indeed a very welcome initiative, and I
congratulate this institution for taking the lead.
I would like
to share my thoughts about employee engagement for your consideration. Not just
thoughts, but some questions also which have stayed on my mind. I have picked
up the following questions for initiating discussion in this address today:
With new forms of organisation and rampant
objectionable people practices, which category of employed persons will be
selected for study of employee engagement?
Should our primary focus be on building an
institution or promoting employee engagement?
Has the leadership conveniently used employee
engagement as a substitute for building institutions?
Are organisations really capable of promoting
Do employees own their engagement?
With new forms of organisation and
rampant objectionable people practices, which category of employed persons will
be selected for study of employee engagement?
I would like
to examine the context in which organisations are functioning today. This is
important because new business models and new forms of organisation have
emerged in the recent past, and they present a new set of challenges.
present some facts to you;
We know that
the taxi-hailing service Uber engages drivers. The number of new drivers sign
up are reportedly 50 thousand every month. The number of registered drivers are
more than 1,60,000 and the number of Uber daily trips exceed one million!
their drivers are not employees but independent contractors! So Uber, if we
have to go by their statement, is an organisation which does not employ anybody
but is valued at USD 51 billion! And not just taxis but they have launched Boat
and Helicopter service too in some countries.
Yet Uber is
essentially an organisation without employees. Or very negligible number of
employees. California court has held that drivers are employees of Uber. Even
so, these so called employees have so little contact with their alleged
employer that I wonder what does ‘employee engagement’ mean to Uber owner and
to so called employees. Is it relevant at all?
In India Meru
has a similar relationship with their drivers and also has disputes about
relationship – whether they are contractors or employees.
Now let us
turn to manufacturing sector.
published a blog in 2014 giving statistics of permanent, temporary, trainees
and contract labour employed in certain big industries in Pune. To put the
story in a nutshell the situation is like this: 10% permanent workers and 90%
contract/ trainees/ temps - those who know that they will lose their jobs after
a certain period of time. Temps lose it when they complete six or seven months,
trainees lose it after one or two years and contract labour is persona non
grata for the employer.
employees are we discussing? Managerial personnel? White collar or privileged
blue collar? So when you say ‘employee engagement,’ who are the people you wish
to study? Those who are privileged to hold a permanent job or those persons who
account for 90 percent of jobs in industry?
another interesting fact: This fact is well known but I am quoting the source
so that nobody can deny it. Here is a quote from the story in the Frontline
Magazine titled ‘Laws for Automatons’: [I quote] ‘In many automobile companies
in Tamil Nadu, there is not a single permanent worker,” Virjesh Upadhyay, BMS
general secretary, told Frontline.’ [Unquote]
backdrop may I ask you ladies and gentlemen, when you say ‘employees’, which
category of employed persons will you study to make a meaningful research?
Play Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde!
commence our study on employee engagement, I would like to quote what a worker
in an auto industry said to me. He said, “Employers play Dr Jekyll to the
people on their rolls and Mr Hyde to those who are not.” Shocking, yet it is
the disturbing, and uncomfortable truth!
Let us see
how this manifests: We know that Flipkart announced the Big Bonanza Sale from
Oct 13 to Oct 17 last year. This was a pre-Diwali Sale. Hindustan Times
reported that Flipkart sold over a million products in the first ten hours! In
other words, one lakh products were sold every hour.
Times reported on Oct 20, 2015 that Flipkart took great care of their employees
providing them food, a chance to win foreign holiday, cash prizes. Flipkart
also made available facility for massage to the tired bodies of their
employees. Oh, how I envy them!
three months earlier, in July 2015, the delivery boys engaged by Flipkart,
obviously thru a contractor, had resorted to a strike demanding basic
facilities like toilets and coverage under the Employees State Insurance
Scheme. That’s how delivery boys get treated on whose efficiency Flipkart banks
The comment ‘Dr
Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ must be understood in that light. My question to you ladies
and gentlemen is: Will your study of employee engagement cover Flipkart
contractors’ employees? And the employed persons they symbolically represent?
This is the
context of industrial scenario which must be borne in our mind before we embark
on the study of employee engagement. Let us discuss the next question.
Should our primary focus be on building
an institution or promoting employee engagement?
flows naturally out of our discussion so far. Should we build an institution or
should we promote employee engagement?
‘Institution Building?’ The sociological explanation which I prefer, is based
on the concept of Philip Selznick. Put concisely, if an organization was doing
something especially valuable to society - then it should be called 'institution'.
This is denoted by a simple equation
which brings out the difference between an organisation and an institution:
+ Values = Institution
There are personal
beliefs or principles by which entrepreneurs create their organisations. They
may not use the term ‘values’ but that’s what they do. Entrepreneurs in SME
segment have often shown courage to take decisions which touched lives of
employees in a positive way, and also set a distinctive culture. It gives them
HDFC Ltd. was
established in 1977 for providing housing loans. This was a difficult area of
work because there were rampant corrupt practices. In 2011 HDFC was listed among
the 110 world's most ethical companies. It was the only Indian organisation in
that list. [Economic Times march 16, 2011]
when the entrepreneur creates the organisation with values he personally
Among the big
industries I like Tata Group’s official vision statement “At the Tata group we
are committed to improving the quality of life of the communities we serve.”
Workout: a Metaphor for Institution Building and Employee Engagement
of athlete’s workout explains that institution building which is the
overarching purpose also requires employee engagement. Institution building is
something akin to athlete’s preparation. He prepares his body for running
marathon, or for weight lifting, and those decisions lead to making
different choices of exercises. There is a purpose, there is a totality of
approach. But the athlete also works to develop specific muscles which are
essential for his purpose.
already mentioned the Tata Vision. It is that vision which made Tata Steel
proactively create a relationship with the Union way back in January 1956, that
is sixty years ago. It lays down the foundation of industrial democracy at work
without using such jargon. JRD Tata is a signatory to this path breaking
agreement. Tatas perhaps could have got away with a regular, run of the mill
settlement giving wage increase, but they chose to set tone for employee
relations in the era when nobody thought of it. I haven’t come across any
settlement like that in India, I would like to believe that none exists. That
was institution building effort carried out so innovatively!
Tatas are an
exception! We see many organisations spending a lot of time, energy and money on
developing employee engagement but ignore leading organisation with good
values. We are also aware that they are simultaneously propelled by greed to
make a quick kill in the market situation. Ethical decisions are not on their
mind. Such organisations with all their boasting of employee engagement
activities never become an institution.
of building a great institution is often incremental, not always planned. It is
often linked to the entrepreneur’s or leader’s development from businessman to
leader with a vision and mission. Yet one conclusion is sure: it is the onus of
Let us talk about Kingfisher. Vijay Mallya, the ‘King of Good
Times’, created Kingfisher airline. We know what happened to it so I am not
elaborating it here. I would however make two observations here: [a] his
website Kingfisher World does not show vision or mission. You have to go to his
flagship company to discover what could probably it be: It is ‘To recognize the
value of human assets and be the preferred employer wherever we operate.’ [b] Contrast
this with Tatas and also compare their actions in public domain.
So we conclude that the leaders must build an institution as
well as promote employee engagement. The primary purpose of promoting employee engagement
is to help the leader build a great institution – I would like to remind you of
the metaphor of athlete’s workout.
When we ask what the purpose of promoting employee engagement
is to managers, the answer is that it increases productivity or helps us get
higher ROI. In other words promote employee engagement to make the organisation
prosperous. The trouble is that a prosperous organisation is not necessarily
valued by people. Remember that the image of Tata Steel [which did not make money in recent years] did not take a beating
in spite of laying off 35000 employees and the image of Reliance [which made tonnes of money in recent years] did not
improve in spite of employing one lakh employees. The society values
institutions and not greedy organisations. Values are important and institution
building is the primary purpose which is supported by employee engagement.
While focusing exclusively on employee engagement we seem to lose sight of its basic
Has the leadership conveniently used
employee engagement as a substitute for institution building?
organisation has done a visioning exercise, and they proudly announce it to the
world by mentioning it on their web site. That vision remains there;
translating it in action requires making and selling some tough choices. It
tests the leadership to the hilt. I often feel that employee engagement
becomes a substitute for building institution.
leads us to another question: Who owns employee engagement? We have to remember
that employee engagement and institution building are two wheels of a chariot.
So the conclusion is that it is, in ultimate analysis, the leader who owns it.
Why is there
so much talk about employee engagement and such scanty evidence of building
institutions? The answer is obvious: Institution building is the test of
leadership and most leaders would NOT like to get evaluated. The success
symbols of leaders are often financial statistics which remain etched in the
minds of people. The success symbols are not his institution building
activities which neither have high visibility nor are they discreet activities
like product launches. So it suits his convenience to get managers to focus on
employee engagement while he takes his eyes off institution building. And HR
functionaries start believing that HR owns the initiative.
Are organisations really capable of promoting
will appear very cynical and provocative. It may not go well elsewhere, but I
think I can take the liberty of putting it in a research seminar.
apart, ‘Are organisations capable of really promoting employee engagement?’ is
a question that has always kept me thinking. Why does it keep me thinking? Let
We think in
terms of polarities. Like light and shadow go together. Both are essential to
get the complete picture. So I have looked at the regrets people have to
understand engagement. These are the top three regrets people expressed on
their death bed. They are [a] ‘I did not
spend enough time with people I loved’’ [b] ‘I did not do work that I really
enjoyed,’ and [c] ‘It was ‘I did not make a difference.’ This study was done by
an Australian nurse but this is my summary. I have blogged about it.
What does it
tell us? It means: People value building relationships, people like to do work
which interests them and people wish to leave a legacy. Since working is a
social activity, communication is of critical importance and a common thread in
all the three things valued but not done.
as well know is important, and the most important aspect of that skill is
the skill of deepening conversations.
How does one
deepen conversations? This question was asked on Quora.com recently and the
answer was very insightful – ‘Over time, as two people share more personal
information, they build a connection. The typical progression goes like this:
1. Clichés→ 2. Facts → 3. Opinions → 4. Feelings
is that the communication in the industry rarely moves beyond opinions. My
experience is that we also tend to jump too quickly to opinions and almost
never share feelings. As if they don’t matter. This is important because
engagement is based on feelings. This only means that we have to learn to
practise empathetic listening. Not just communication which is popularly
understood as ability to speak good English. In the industry where most of talk
is about tangibles like goals and achievement measured in various statistics,
feelings of people are never on the radar.
This takes us
back to the question I raised ‘Are organisations capable of really promoting
employee engagement?’ With the sentient side of the organisation ignored,
skills like ‘deepening the conversations’ placed at a premium, empathetic
listening not practised, the organisations’ capability seems to be very
Let us look
at the metaphors of engagement to explain such underpreparedness.
metaphor for engagement?
matter because they are held subconsciously yet they guide our actions. My
conversations with managers in the industry lead me to believe that the
metaphor for engagement in their mind is one of a railway engine ‘engaged’ with
carriages to make a journey. The compulsive strategy linkage talk which we hear
in the corporate world from conference room to canteen only strengthens it. The
carriages are dragged and they have so little room for individual movement.
I have often
felt that the metaphor for engagement is a ring formed by people holding hands.
People face each other and they hold hands. It is touching, and it instantly
brings smile. If you have observed people forming a ring, you will also notice
that they respond differently to the experience. Invariably they get very
expressive immediately after forming a ring. Even in a group like a ring,
people experience the activity differently.
gentlemen, I urge you to explore what kind of metaphors managers hold about
employee engagement and how it impacts their actions.
an event is very personal
I am reminded
here the famous poem ‘Metaphors of a Magnifico’. The observation the poet makes
is ‘Twenty men crossing a bridge into a village, are, twenty men crossing twenty
bridges into twenty villages.’ We know that every experience is very personal,
each person interprets an event differently. A soldier crossing the familiar
bridge which he perhaps crossed as a young boy and getting in the village which
is his place of residence will experience crossing of the bridge and entering
the village differently than a soldier who has no such attachments. ‘Twenty men
crossing a bridge into a village, are, twenty men crossing twenty bridges into
event of acquisition of a company: It excites a manager while his colleague
feels the serious threat of losing his job! Experiencing an event is so
personal, and moored in our past and our concerns. So we have to find out how
people are responding to various decisions, and events over which they may not
accentuates the need for touch, listening. Creating fora where people can share
their experiences openly without fear is very important. More so in the
industry today which is marked by terrible work-life balance and harassment at
Communication provide the atmosphere for Engagement
climate is such that there are upheavals too frequently. The attention of the
organisation is often focused on remedial actions. Employee engagement recedes
in the background and is not on the radar screen. This becomes most visible
when there are lay-offs.
I am sure
that you will recall the furore when TCS gave pink slips to a few thousand
employees. It made big news, there were videos, caustic tweets, and secret
audio recordings of the layoff decisions. The techies went to the court, and
formed union, and even won a reprieve from the Court. A great institution had
suddenly become the villain of the piece! The reason was that the process was
seen as very unfair by the employees. This event will be remembered and it will
take some time for the employees to get over it.
indicates that employees appreciate the economic necessities, and do not hold
actions like layoffs against the organisations as long as the process is seen
underscores the need to reach out to employees regularly not only when there is
a problem on hand. But we do not see much evidence of experimentation of
creating meaningful conversations. So my question: Are organisations capable of
really promoting employee engagement?
Do the Employees own their Engagement?
manager once mentioned that he asked his boss ‘What are you doing to motivate
me?’ The new age industries have focused so much on creating the right
atmosphere, perhaps rightly so, but it is having an interesting fallout. People
often think that motivation must happen to them, engagement must happen to
them. And it is to be done by the organisation to them.
I remember an
incident in my life. I was thirteen or fourteen year old when I went to a party
with my parents. There was nobody of my age there, so angrily I moved to a
corner and sat there sulking. My father came over and gave some fatherly advice
– the long and short of it was that happiness was a personal decision, and I
had to make efforts to make moves to enjoy the party.
this surely. Think of the contract labour, some of them as peons engaged in
your office. You will find that some of them show very high level of
engagement. Think of the factors loaded against them – they get paid
differentially, the facilities offered are not the same yet they are engaged.
We will also
notice that the managers for whom they work deal with them with some respect,
attend to their issues within the available discretion, and this reinforces the
engagement. It depends on the relationships at work, but it also essentially depends
on the view the person takes of himself. Didn't Frankl suggest [Man's Search
for Meaning] that the kind of prisoner one becomes depends on some inner
decision, not on environmental conditions alone? There is a last human freedom,
available in even the most deprived conditions: the freedom to choose one’s attitude
toward one’s suffering. Contract labour may be deprived of so many rightful
things, yet those who have exercised freedom of choice stand out as engaged
mentioned this extreme case only to put forth the point that engagement is
owned by the employee too. The issue is how to encourage it. That again
requires conversations, and deepening of conversations.
will presume that my purpose is served if my statements have provoked you to
identify some areas for research.
I would like
to thank the organisers for inviting me to deliver the key note address. I wish
you all a very educative and thought provoking seminar ahead.
Vivek S Patwardhan
"What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others."
Labels: Conversations, Employee Engagement, Kingfisher, Tata Group, Tata Steel