Blog: The Inner Game of Industrial Relations - Part I

Employee Engagement

The Inner Game of Industrial Relations - Part I

Employee relations involve interplay of emotions. They can be a 'data' or 'input' for some though not for all
The Inner Game of Industrial Relations - Part I

I find metaphors very useful. On my blog I recently published a post in that I mentioned the similarities between a Bollywood formula film and IR. Both have a hero, a villain, and an elusive heroin that is desired by both. Then there is a big fight; then misunderstandings are removed and then there is family photograph.

But this metaphor will not serve our purpose. So I thought hard what could represent the game better and I found the answer. The game of chess. Yes, the game of chess.

There is one peculiarity about a game of chess. It is seen and analysed in three stages. There is the ‘Opening game’ in which players build positions, then there is the ‘Middle game’ in which there is lot of give and take and an immense power game, and then the ‘End game’ when one emerges a victor, he closes it all.

Liken this to setting up a factory like many companies have done it recently. Why factory you can take any establishment, even retail chain. Fortunately I have been associated with both, so I know the problems. There is a lot of planning that goes for ensuring high productivity and sometimes for setting the right culture. Some succeed and some fail. This is the ‘Opening game.’

The ‘Middle game’ is full of drama. Sometimes the unrest among the employees develops which impacts negatively. Sometimes a union comes on the scene. The conflict develops, gets escalated very often as a power game. The conflict redefines equations.

The ‘End game’ is when the parties decide to part ways. Sometimes due to closure, sometimes they part ways because of heavy downsizing, retirements voluntary or otherwise.

While a metaphor helps us understand deeper issues, no metaphor can offer full explanation; it is only a tool to gain insight. The similarities cannot be ignored. Business is run on logic, cold logic if you prefer. Employee relations involve interplay of emotions. Emotions of employees can be a ‘data’ or ‘input’ for some though not for all for making decisions. There are hard decisions to be taken when you set up a new establishment, when you revitalise or rejuvenate an old establishment and when you close it down. There is an objective to achieve and serve and there is a resistance to nullify – call it influencing.

Admittedly, the metaphor of the game of chess pictures two players pitted against each other. It is an adversarial relationship, no facades there. In employee relations, the relationship should not be adversarial, but there are times when conflict of interest is inevitable. Yet, there is always enough and unexplored ground of collaboration. In that sense the metaphor of a game of chess does not fit. I have used it because it helps me put things in context easily. Nevertheless, I would like to acknowledge this shortcoming of the metaphor and would request you to bear in mind.

The Opening Game

Let us focus on what happens in the opening game. In the opening you want to get a rapid development of your primary pieces. You also want to safe guard your king, generally by castling. It is in this phase of the game that you want to try and achieve dominance over the middle four squares of the board. That’s chess.

What happens when you open an establishment? The project team works hard to ensure that they establish processes which give them higher productivity. They make sure that the manning is lean. They establish metrics to measure productivity. If you had a plant elsewhere, then you study what is not okay there and try to avoid it in the new plant. So right manning, right work practices and learn from past experience to avoid certain things. You train people extensively because you want the right work practices and productivity.

You recruit people with some thought. You prefer people who are not locals. As such for a new establishment in India the environment is usually hostile. If you allow the locals to dominate you, then you had it. Maruti is known to have recruited people from other states. Indal [as it was then, now Hindalco] at Taloja faced tremendous difficulty – the local MLA said that he will join the recruitment panel. Indal is reported to have stood firm and not allowed it. For a few days the work came to a grinding halt, but Indal settled the equation in their favour. Elaborate tests are given to select a worker. This ensures people with requisite skills are only selected.

In the new factories there is a practice of selecting only the Diploma engineers as workers. An educated worker will not go to the union is one of the unspoken premise. What is articulated is that even the worker will have a chance to be a manager with this training. We find this policy in Bajaj Auto and many other establishments.

In Simpson group in the South, workers in different age groups are selected when they establish a new factory. One of the underlying beliefs is that older workers will have sobering influence on the younger workers.

It is interesting to see how carefully appointments are done. The first step is to appoint workers as apprentices, then as trainees and then as probationers. In other words you cannot be a permanent worker unless you have put in about three years of service. What is the logic? Obviously the organisations do not want to have any black sheep among workers.

When new factories are established, the work practices are defined. Workers are told to come before start of the shift. Breakfast is served in the 15 min before the starting of the shift. They are to start work at the very minute the shift commences. Long back in the eighties Mr Keki Randeria made a presentation on how Voltas was setting up the Narora plant with a lot of thought about recruiting workers, about designing their jobs, about work practices. Mr Randeria was earlier HR head at ITC and had just moved to Voltas. To the best of my knowledge, that Narora experiment was a trend setter. Incidentally he was speaking about the Narora plant which was near Nagpur. The grapevine has it that this experiment unfortunately did not succeed. We have no clue as to the reasons. But it must be lauded for it proactive stance in defining work and work relationships. Subsequently I have seen presentations of many organisations, notable among them were the presentations made by Marico. They seem to try and do something new at every factory they set up. And they have been very successful too.

We have seen that the opening game is all about developing your pieces. It is about safeguarding your king, usually by castling. Did you see how this is done? What are the underlying beliefs about non-management cadre employees?

Some employers like Marico are different. They experiment in every factory they set up. So they said that workers need not punch cards or use access cards. You are treated as present unless you apply for leave. They repose trust and confidence in you. Will not the workers misuse the facility? Their experience is that no, they don’t. Developing your pieces does not mean ensuring just high productivity alone for them; they play the game to develop a good work ethic.

That is the point. During the opening game we have to focus on developing good work ethic, not just productivity and work practices. Developing good work ethic requires managers to be a role model. So the work really starts from focusing on ourselves. It is really difficult not to treat the workforce differently from the management staff. We realise that we must treat all equal but even the Indian culture is so hierarchical that it is difficult not to be influenced by it. It takes a great effort to break away from the influence of culture and create a work ethic.

Having said that let us look back and see what forces operate to develop employee relations positively or otherwise, at the Opening game. Here are four statements which we can make:

[a] We have to focus on developing work ethic and this is the best opportunity since there are no past experiences and no hardened attitudes. Managers have to realise that they have to be role models if good work ethic is to be developed.

[b] Focusing on productivity and work practices is essential and must be done simultaneously.

[c] We have to act out of hope and not out of fear.

[d] Managing the hostile environment effectively is essential at this stage because it sets the tone for further interactions.

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Topics: Employee Engagement, Employee Relations, #IndustrialRelations, #HRInsights

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