Factory HR? … Huh! That’s so uncool!
That is exactly the reaction I got when I was explaining to a friend why I had decided to shift from a role in a corporate office and move to a manufacturing plant role. Most of my friends could not fathom why someone would leave the luxuries of flexible timings, air-conditioned cubicles, work-from-home option and dealing with sophisticated and urbane colleagues in a modern buzzing metro city and willing go to a hot and perspiring atmosphere to deal with blue-collared workers in a sleepy, quiet town outside the city limits. Many still insist that under no circumstances they would consider trading five-day work-week for six days at work, food courts for a staple lunch of roti-daal and casual dressings for a uniform with a hard hat and work in a dusty environment filled with loud and shrill noises.
But there are certain advantages and experiences that working in manufacturing plant offers, which cannot be matched by a corporate office, especially in the early stages of our careers as a HR professional.
It is the best time to relocate
Most manufacturing plants may not be located very close to a metro city due to financial viability, Octroi costs and land costs among others. The beginning of our career is the time when we have least responsibilities and constraints that hinder our chances to relocate. The more we grow up, various aspects like spouse and children etc become parameters to consider. I have lost count of colleagues who have told me that they would give up anything to be able to work in a manufacturing HR role as they have never experienced it before. But at the stage they are in, they are not able to relocate due to various constraints. They regret that they do not see a possibility to move in future either except if a Factory HR role opens up very close to their city; and such openings are few and far between.
Experience of connecting with people very different from us
It may be a challenge to deal with people who are from a similar educational, economic and social background as us; but it is requires a paradigm shift to be able to connect with people who are totally different. During one of my visits to a manufacturing plant, I was chatting with a worker on what was the best aspect of working in the company. I expected him to answer something like benefits, facilities or work environment just like any of us would. Instead his answer shocked me. He said that he was grateful to the company for one big reason – he would get his salary sharp on 7th every month. It seemed like an innocent and naive answer, but on probing further he informed that many of his friends working in nearby companies get salaries very erratically. He mentioned that during an emergency, most of his acquaintances are very hesitant to lend money. However when his wife had met with a medical emergency a few months ago, most acquaintances were willing, as they knew that under any circumstances, he gets paid on 7th and therefore their money will be returned immediately. A fellow-worker overhearing our conversation added that the nearby shopkeepers give groceries on credit only to the workers of his company as they knew that it would be paid on 7th of the following month without fail. Both of them insisted that the factory was their ‘karmabhumi’ and they want nothing more than to see the factory being successful.
Such loyalty for a very basic aspect may be unfathomable for us, who treat a company as a stepping stone, a brief stop-over in our career. But for individuals very different from us, it meant everything. Concepts like customization of total rewards, Employee Value Proposition, different strokes for different folks etc have never been explained better.
Exposure to Ground realities
Sitting in a place far removed from the field, it is extremely difficult to understand the consequences of any action and how it affects the dynamics at the ground level.
One of my friends described his experiences during recruitment of young engineers from colleges. Many suggested that candidates should be selected based on their academic record, personality, English speaking and go-getter. However the line management team insisted that most of the go-getters would also literally ‘go out’ of the organization, once they come face-to-face with six-day working culture, hot and perspiring work environment and the need to deal with workers. They insisted that in this case, the best candidate may not necessarily be the right candidate, and they need to look at individuals who essentially come from a background which values humility & hard work, and have the right skill-set to connect with blue collared workmen. An iPhone flashing, academically brilliant and sophisticated individual simply may not be able to connect with the workmen. The workmen also will soon wonder how this new supervisor, before even receiving his first pay-check, is able to afford a product that costs more than their monthly salary and can lead to resentment.
There have been many cases when my colleagues have grumbled over the lack of nominations for training during the end of the financial year, while the manufacturing team insists that sending nominations during this time affects the production. Once I was asked to obtain certain data from the Plant HR team and there was no one responding to the repeated emails or phone calls. I was extremely agitated and complained, only to regret it later when I came to know that there was an accident in the factory and the entire team had gone to the hospital with the patient.
It is critical to understand the ground realities before we rise up the ladder, so that we can accurately predict the impact of any decision we make. It is not without reason that many HR veterans have manufacturing plant background.
There is a reason why there is so much research on quantifying the impact of HR on business, because it is not as straightforward as other functions. However in a plant role, the consequences are much more obvious. If there is no manpower available at the right time, there will be an immediate complaint from the production team, informing the production loss due to the lack of manpower. A suggestion to conduct training in the last week of a month (peak time in most manufacturing industries) will immediately be shot down. It is much easier to get immediate feedback on any engagement activity or a new policy, and also recognize how they play or influence at the ground level.
Dealing with multiple stakeholders
A manufacturing plant role also gives the opportunity to deal with various stakeholders – including government agencies, political leaders, local leaders, unions, community etc. Each of these stakeholders has their own agenda, which often conflict with the objectives of the organization. Managing all the players and ensuring that they do not affect the plant at the least and positively contribute to the plant at best is a very enriching experience. Multi-tasking may be a challenge, but it doesn’t come close to multi-stakeholder management.
IR/ER issues in Service Sector
Today employee relation issues are not simply limited to blue-collar; instead they have made inroads into the service sector as well. It is indeed a challenge to deal with the more educated, well-informed, socially connected and media savvy white-collar employees.
When TCS decided to send home the underperformers earlier this year, there were many whispers that the last bastion has been breached and the IT industry was due for unionization. In 2008, when Jet airways had terminated the services approximately 1000 employees, the employees had organized themselves with political parties to protest. A section of employees of the BPO leader WNS has gone on strike to demand better wage hikes and protest against the retrenchment of some employees. Even the blue-collar workmen are no longer dissociated. Workers in a Food & Beverages MNC in India went on a flash strike not for better wages, living conditions or anything else directly connected to themselves – but to protest the humiliation of Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade in the United States.
An experience in a manufacturing setup gives an experience of dealing with various issues, which are extremely critical even in service sectors.
The view of a situation from 500-feet level can be very different from the reality at the actual field. As an example of disconnect between headquarters and actual site, Dr. Joel and Michelle Levey in ‘Thriving in Complex Times’, American Management Association MWorld Summer 2013, mention the time when a group of senior British Petroleum (BP) leaders from London first flew over the Alberta Tar Sands operation. A number of them became physically ill upon witnessing firsthand the devastating impact that the work and policies back at the headquarters were having on the natural environment.
Working in a factory exposes us to varied challenges which equip us with the ability to connect with all sorts of people and understanding of ground realities. Therefore a manufacturing experience is imperative for anyone aspiring to take up a leadership role. It is essential that companies also motivate and encourage young professionals to move to factories and facilitate the transition to develop holistic and well-rounded HR leaders.