The role of HR is not just about managing stars, it is also about managing the people who want to be stars but clearly cannot be
CEOs of businesses should acknowledge their employees as individuals not just resources
Dr. Prasanth Nair, Global Head - Human Resources, Cipla, shares with Basuri Dutta, the need for HR to change its approach towards people management
How has your journey in HR been so far and how has the people function evolved in your industry over time?
At the beginning of my career, HR played a role that encompassed administrative or operational work. Today, it is involved in strategic decisions, both at the conception and implementation stages. This happened due to the realization that people are not only an important asset to the organization, but are key differentiators.
The role of HR has also attained criticality as a result of the economic boom, resulting in scarcity of talent in the market. Acquiring and retaining the best talent became important, particularly in the context of joint ventures, acquisitions, etc. This made the involvement of HR in the strategy of the organization critical.
The other noteworthy phenomenon is that HR, in its role of a business partner, has swung the other way completely and this has resulted in it losing touch with the people, who it primarily represents. So, it is a balancing act that HR has to play, with the needs of the business on one side and the needs of the people on the other.
Today, managing the aspirations of current and prospective employees takes up most of the time. It is a question of demand and supply. There are job options available and therefore, people want to choose their options as per what they want. At the same time, because of the explosion of media and communication, and exposure to a lot of things that are happening in the outside world, the level of aspiration is much greater than what it was some years back. Further, whatever one aspires for today, one wants that to realize within a much shorter time- span. On top of all this, there are also many success stories in India where people have been able to meet high aspirations within a given timeframe. While this is a positive thing, it creates a challenge for HR to manage these aspirations, because everybody cannot become a success story. Hence, the role of HR is not just about managing stars, it is also about managing the people who want to be stars, but clearly cannot be. The generation born in the 1990s has not really seen severe downturns, scarcity and disappointments. Thus, managing both success and failure will be crucially important for HR now and in the coming years.
Narrate a story of human interest in an organization that you have been a witness to.
This is the story of a security guard at our Sikkim factory. There are buses that ply, to take our employees back home from the factory, after working hours. Sikkim, as one would know has mountainous terrain and therefore, the roads are along the edge of mountains, with steep and blind curves. On this day, when one of the buses came to pick up the employees, the security guard at the factory realized that the driver was under the influence of alcohol. He told the driver that he would not allow the workers to go with him in the bus and asked the driver to return. Apparently, in Sikkim there is a practice that if you are taking an empty bus, people on the way hitch a ride. On this occasion, when the bus was turned back by the security guard, as usual a few other people on the way hitched a ride in the empty bus. The bus fell into a gorge and unfortunately all those, who had hitched a ride, lost their lives. However, our employees, whom the security guard had detained, survived. It was all because of the ownership mindset displayed by the security guard, who used his good judgment and presence of mind and so many of our employees’ lives were saved. This is a story that needs to be told.
What is the one characteristic that you believe every people manager should possess and why?
The singular most important quality that a people manager should possess is ‘credibility’. The day a person asks a people manager to give something in writing, the people manager should know that he/she has no credibility. The second most important trait would be ‘compassion’.
What change has the employer-employee relationship undergone?
Over time, this relationship has become very transactional or contractual. Although one recognizes the need for something to be on paper, the employer-employee relationship cannot be dictated or guided by that alone. There needs to be an emotional connect and a psychological contract between the employer and employee. One of the key roles of HR is to ensure that this connect between the employer and employee is beyond contractual. The change in the employer-employee relationship is with respect to the imbalance between that which is contractual and that which is emotional. What we increasingly find is that, on the one hand, the employees are called an organization’s most valuable assets and on the other hand, with the first sign of recession, the axe falls on the employees. In this kind of a situation, the very next day, if an organization proclaims that people are the most valuable asset, no one would ever believe that anymore. Credibility, having been lost once, is hard to reinstate and therefore, even during an upturn the existing employees would be skeptical in trusting the employer. That is the trust deficit in the relationship today that HR has to refill.
The other change that this relationship has undergone is that the focus of both the employer and the employee has shifted from long-term value addition to short-term value addition. Aspirations of people have grown, but the time one allows to fulfill that aspiration has become extremely short. So, the window of value addition has been compressed. Even organizations expect to see the value addition within a shorter span of time and thus, we see 3-5 year career plans these days in organizations. The pressure of time is on both sides.
What is that one thing you want from your CEO?
Respect for people’s emotions is what one would want from one’s CEOs. All CEOs realize that people are their most important asset. However, CEOs of businesses should acknowledge their employees as individual people, not just resources. An asset is an input, but people are more than just inputs in a business.
If you had to hire the entire workforce by asking just one question, what would that be?
Since I have only one chance, my question would be, “What do you think is the most important question that you would want to ask me?” The response in turn will help me make my decision. I will get an insight into the level at which the person is thinking and what occupies this person’s mind when he or she comes for this meeting.