Article: What colour are your employees' collars?

Employee Relations

What colour are your employees' collars?

The face-off between Jet Airways and its pilots has led to the emergence of a new category of employees, Gold Collar Employees. While shaping organisations of the future,the psyche of these new-age employees will need serious attention, says Dr. R. Krishna Murthy, Head, S.R. Mohan Das & Associates

Unionisation is still seen in a primitive manner and this is primarily due to unchanged attitudes and mental make-up of the organisations


The emergence of gold collar employees in the IT, ITes and other service industry into the workforce has been unprecedented in the last decade


The face-off between Jet Airways and its pilots has led to the emergence of a new category of employees, Gold Collar Employees. While shaping organisations of the future, the psyche of these new-age employees will need serious attention, says Dr. R. Krishna Murthy, Head, S.R. Mohan Das & Associates

Jet Airways pilots took again to the skies following a resolution of their conflict late last year. It was a conflict that has per-haps redefined relationships in the avia-tion industry. To begin with, a strike took place in the private sector and not in the notorious government/public sector. And most importantly, it was resolved by the parties themselves even though the strike invited contempt proceedings from the Bombay High Court. The pilots had defied orders of the court to return to work and continued to report sick, disrupting air travel. Even though the management sought to press for withdrawal of the case, the court has refused to let go and close the matter.

The agitation did focus on one important dimension in employment relationship - the emergence of Gold Collar Employees. The pilots cannot be classified as white collar employees. They are paid several times what traditional office employees get paid. Yet they chose to go on strike to press for their demands. The airline also did not want to talk to the union and sought dismantling of the union as a precondition for talks and fired the activists behind the organization which led the strike. Although the dismissed pilots were taken back, the issues continue to dog the airline. Unionisation is still seen in a primitive manner and this is primarily due to unchanged attitudes and mental make-up of the organizations despite them having changed beyond recognition.

The New-age Employees

The emergence of gold collar employees in the IT, ITes and other service industry, as well as the emergence of Pink Collar Employees (women) into the workforce has been unprecedented in the last decade. Factories that were teeming with blue collar workers, like the Godrej plant at Vikhroli in Mumbai see an army of women working in night shifts. They clearly outnumber the men. Managing these employees is different from the traditional blue collar workers, who were perhaps not as educated or skilled, and left major issues for the union to take up on their behalf with the employer.
When doctors, teachers, and pilots take to the streets, or go on strike to protest, it sends out shock waves. It is illogical to demand that they first call off the strike and then seek resolution of their dispute by talks. If talks had succeeded, there would never have been the need for a strike. It is therefore absurd to put a precondition of withdrawal of the strike to commence talks and explore ways and means to resolve the dispute. Predominantly, in the aviation industry, the pilots are the key persons who have the power to turnaround the organization and without their cooperation, organizational success cannot be guaranteed.

In this whole episode, one thing that employers have realized is that the new age employees are quite vociferous in their demands, do not put up with officialdom quietly and speak their minds. Moreover, they have other potential job offers available to them should the employer sever their employment. Even the unions are finding it difficult to measure up to their standards and they do not take to unionism in the same manner like their blue collar brethrens. They question, challenge and even have the audacity to differ and assert themselves. This often makes it difficult for the unions handling their case.

Nurturing Talent

Preparing the organization to manage these employees therefore requires a different mindset and focus. The traditional profile of the workforce has changed and getting new young talent into the organization and keeping them motivated is a paramount challenge looming in front of employers. And here, retaining talent and nurturing employees to meet their targets and goals will be the most important dimension of HR. Managing conflicts, both ego as well as functional conflicts, is also an important requirement. The problem in the Indian environment is that our employees are a by-product of divergent cultures, ethnicity, race, religion and language. Unlike other countries like Japan, Germany, et al, where one language unites the thought process and work place, in India, words have different meanings and getting divergent groups to have the same wavelength and function in unison is a major HR challenge. While individual relationships in most places are managed well, our organizations have still to learn the dynamics when it comes to dealing with groups and collective interaction.

Apart from redefining roles at the workplace, where hierarchies and job content need to be drawn to meet the requirements of the workforce, HR has to be innovative and creative to present an organization that will be challenging and a fun place to work. This will help in building employee-skills and at the same time, scale up the competency profile of the existing workforce to meet business needs. The concept of a ‘permanent job’ has all but vanished and individuals who do not measure up to the organization’s requirements find it increasingly difficult to survive. Hierarchies are being slashed and pay packages are significantly higher than what was traditionally paid. And yes, the jobs have a higher degree of accountability and deliverables.

Several IT and ITes companies have created portals that have an online grievance submission section, where employees get a reply from the CEO or HR within 24 hours. These are mostly on intranet, and co-workers can access and see the response. That speaks a lot for the transparency and speed with which issues are addressed. This is also the reason why the IT/ITes industry has seen such huge growth. With companies such as TCS employing over 1,30,000 employees and Infosys and Wipro with over a lakh employees each, such new techniques are required to ensure employee issues get addressed.

Employers of new organizations of the future would therefore do well to heed the lessons that are particularly relevant for the Indian Employee. The following steps will be the key turning points for any organization:

1. A lot of thought will have to be given to the nature of work in the organization. It will be the prerogative of the employer to build job responsibilities and have scope for growth, progress and challenge. Gender diversity at the workplace will have to be imperatively ensured as many of the workplaces are notoriously designed, oblivious to the needs of the fairer sex. Organizations like banks, insurance and new economy IT and ITes industry will need workplaces that are very attractive and cater to even the personal needs of the employees as employment has shifted from eight hours to 24X7 and workplaces are designed not just for work but meeting the needs of livelihood.

2. While organizations will be more focussed on performance and rewards, pay will be fixed and variable. The variable will be dependent on the individual’s contributions, bonuses and perks. However, HR policy on pay needs flexibility to factor variations in the market, special skills sets of individuals and unique contributions. The policy also must be transparent and fair across the board.

3. The lead time for responding to poor performance, misconduct, incompetence will become shorter and tolerance levels will come down drastically. It will also lead to a more robust climate of employee awareness and demands, and the employers will be compelled, both legally as well as morally, to deal with more than the ‘traditional workmen constituency’. Dealing with professionals and skilled, or the knowledge workforce will mean more transparency, accountability and challenge to the status quo. Ego-conflicts and functional conflicts can co-exist without jeopardising team cohesion and cooperation. Despite differences, searching for common ground and building a commitment to the relationship is more important and that would require grounding of the individuals employed into the core value systems of the organization.

4. While nurturing and developing talent will be the main focus, surgical severances, (particularly when the core values of the company are violated or performance by individuals fails to meet customer and organizational requirements), will be critical to manage. Events from the recent past show that when it comes to managing complex organizations, we still prefer our primitive and knee jerk responses rather than well thought out and inspiring initiatives. These steps will prove key turning points for the organization.

Dr. R. Krishna Murthy heads S.R. Mohan Das & Associates, a Consultancy firm that specializes in the field of Industrial Relations and Human Resources Management. He advices on routine H.R. matters or legal issues, matters pertaining to compliance under labour laws, legal queries, handling issues of indiscipline, termination of employment, etc.

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Topics: Employee Relations, #Culture, #IndustrialRelations

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