The Counsellor: Advocating for employees
CASE: A respected and established company with a longstanding reputation for fair and thoughtful leadership is undergoing a bleak period. A recently dismissed senior leader has committed suicide and it is being alleged that this leader took his life because of the severe and inhuman pressure the company put on him. While the matter is being investigated, the company has a reputation crisis on hand. How can it address the turmoil amongst its employees in this sensitive situation and also ensure that it continues its ability to attract and retain the right talent?
This case seems to be based on a suicide, which was a result of the alleged inhuman pressure built by a company on an employee. Such allegations are always very hard to prove and it is difficult to get into the merits of the case. It is also very difficult to accept that a senior leader will commit suicide on the basis of inhuman pressure by the corporation. For the sake of solving this case, I will nevertheless assume for the time being that the allegations are true.
If the allegations are true, it is a clear indication of the failure of the HR function and the leadership as a whole. My experience with most HR professionals is that they do not play the role of employee advocacy to the extent that they should be playing. Excessive focus on evaluating HR function against the operational metrics, measurable targets and goals and value creation initiatives ensures the softer side of HR function is either neglected or is ignored.
In the industrial economy era, the business leaders as well as HR professionals always had a role of acting on behalf of the management against the employees who were /are unionised. Industrial economy era always saw a war between the capital and the labour in which the capital was represented by the HR professionals in whatever name like Personnel Manager, Labour officer, IR Manager, etc. Workers felt the need for unionisation as HR and the business leadership were not playing the employee championship role.
In today’s knowledge economy era, the same behaviour is continuing. Today we talk a lot about HR business partnership as a significant HR role, not realising that employee championship role is becoming more and more crucial especially since the knowledge economy workers are mostly non-unionised. In the above cited case, I have not seen any reference to what role the HR played while the alleged inhuman pressure was being built on this leader. I will not be surprised if the HR was at the forefront of building such a pressure if any. Somewhere the HR business partnership role and the concept of behaving like an owner have kept the HR professionals away from being the employee advocates.
I would like to believe that this is the right time for this corporation to go back to the drawing board and review its core values, beliefs and the various policies and practices that emanate from them. It is also the time to look at the employee value proposition that this company offers to its employees. Time to figure out if what they have is relevant in modern times, does it appeal to the new genre of workforce that it wants to attract and retain?
The company’s ability to attract and retain the top talent will depend on how it will resolve this case. I believe these types of cases are difficult to prove either way, unless there is substantial conclusive evidence like suicide note, related correspondence, witnesses, etc. We will not go into the merits of the case. However, it is a fact that one life is lost for whatever reason. This is the time for company to take a position that we don’t care for evidence; we will not argue either way, we will like to look at this death sympathetically and ensure elegant and generous treatment to the dependents of the deceased employee. This should be followed by corrective and preventive measures to ensure such cases don’t repeat in the future. This is also the time to figure out why the alleged inhuman pressure if any was built on this employee. Deal with the root cause of such pressure quickly.
This is the right time for the HR function to look at its own role and ensure adequate measures are taken to engage with leaders and other knowledge workers who may not be unionised. Deep engagement will ensure that such cases of harassment if any are nipped in the bud. Create appropriate forums for employees to fearlessly air out their grievances / issues leading to the timely resolution.