How to put the 'human' back in Human Resources?

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Changing industries, evolving technologies, protectionism — all these can make an IT employee's career understandably unstable. But CEOs have no alibi when it is their own unpreparedness for the future that forced them to ride roughshod over company staff.

"If HR is measured, rewarded and punished on the basis of how many people they ‘got rid off’ in a week or month, sensitivity towards human staff is unlikely to be a key result." | iStock / Paul Noronha

Tough times call for tough behaviour. But is this always true? When dealing with humans, is acting tough the best way? Humans and resources are two different entities. Unfortunately, the corporate world has combined them into an oxymoron.

About 18 months ago, an employee with 20 years of experience decided to resign from one of India's top five IT services firms. The reason: she got an automated email from HR stating that she had to attend classes in Java programming that would supposedly make her billable (effectively render her a resource whose work is worth charging clients for) overnight. Funnily enough, though, she had been brought into the company for her domain expertise in a specified role that called for no hard-core programming skills. Could HR then have done better than to include her in the mailing list? Could the lady have not taken the email as an affront to her skills?

While resigning, her only request to the HR team was that she be allowed to finish her three-month notice period before leaving. A fair ask? Not according to the HR team, which decided she had to quit that very week. The argument was: “Anyway you get three months’ salary. If you quit now, it helps my metrics look good.”

Metrics — bench strength, in this case — is what it all boils down to, over and above human relations and sensitivity. When faced with a dwindling order book and rising client exits, the quickest way to make the metrics look good is to decrease bench strength. If a staff member exits immediately, the bench strength reduces even if their salary continues to be paid after. If reduced by large enough numbers, investors could well view it as a good sign, driving up the share price of the company.

 

Where is the accountability for a CEO and the board of directors? Is their inability to see what’s coming any less culpable than the 35-year-old who has supposedly ‘missed’ the bus? Should the management not be equally punished for falling behind?

 

Elsewhere, a few years ago, a client decided to end work with an Indian IT major. About a few hundred people were rendered redundant and given marching orders the very next week. It makes you wonder: Can’t a billion-dollar major get another project for a few hundred people? And even if it takes 4-6 months to do this, can’t they remain on the rolls, being put to some use or the other? Surely, the company can afford that kind of wait.

In many cases, IT staff being asked to leave have about 10-15 years of experience but have apparently outlived their useful existence for their employers. Protectionism across the world, automation and constantly-evolving technologies are ostensibly making large numbers of Indian IT staff redundant.

Come to think of it, the noise around protectionism in the U.S. has been ringing out loud at least since the mid-’90s, if not earlier. During the presidency of Bill Clinton, the maximum number of annually available U.S. H-1B visas fell from 195,000 to 65,000 because Mr. Clinton refused to enact a law that would have kept the numbers high. Successive U.S. presidents have spoken of heavy action on the visa front, promising to protect jobs in their country. Indian IT CXOs have had two decades to act on these warnings.

Why has the IT industry been so dependent on visas that it now finds itself unprepared and grappling with the new reality? Why weren't existing employees trained for the future? For someone who made the grade a decade ago with his Java or .Net programming skills, it is no big deal to switch technologies. Management will-power is all that is needed to make this happen.

From the view of the employee, consider how the world has changed from his halcyon days in college when he had a job offer in hand even before graduating. Now, if laid off, he is not sure if the same skills are wanted elsewhere. The employee’s error lay in not equipping himself with the skills that the market would have wanted. The argument is that he should have foreseen the shifting sands of the marketplace. Why isn't the same yardstick applied to a CEO who has clearly lost the plot? Once the tsunami is on him, he ‘weeds’ out those unwanted humans, gets new people with new skills and bingo, he is back in business.

Where is the accountability for a CEO and the board of directors? Is their inability to see what’s coming any less culpable than the 35-year-old who has supposedly ‘missed’ the bus? Should the management not be equally punished for falling behind? After all, with 30-plus years of experience, they are expected to be those visionaries that can tell you the future, accurately.

 

Let us be clear. This is not a naïve plea for mercy. Everybody recognises that if a company has to exist profitably, employees have to contribute meaningfully. I have had the good fortune to traverse three worlds — as an IT industry manager who had to ease an employee out because the latter would not correct his errant ways, as an entrepreneur who had to manage a team of employees, and as a journalist who has written widely on the cyclical performance of the IT industry.

If the presence of a good chunk of employees puts the company’s existence itself in jeopardy, then surely there is merit in layoffs. But a piecemeal approach that merely increases shareholder value, without accountability from the top management to the employees, is objectionable.

HR too is a victim of these metrics. The IT industry rewards performance based on ‘Key Result Areas’. If HR is measured, rewarded and punished on the basis of how many people they ‘got rid off’ in a week or month, sensitivity towards human staff is unlikely to be a key result. How can HR be expected to remain ‘sensitive’ to human angst when they themselves live and die by numbers?

The blame goes all the way up to the top. More recently, the chairman, vice-chairman and CEO of an IT major have publicly apologised for the ‘insensitive’ manner in which an HR executive dealt with an employee being terminated.

In my view, a bigger apology is needed for having missed upcoming trends in the industry and failing to prepare for them.

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