Mr. V.K.Talithaya is the President of Primacy Industries Limited an Export Oriented Unit at Mangalore. He is an HR professional both in Public and
Private enterprises. He has served with distinction in organizations such as Steel Authority of India, Metallurgical & Engineering Consultants, Deccan Herald group of publications, Kinetic Honda Motors, Bharat Electronics Ltd., Mangalore Refinery & Petrochemicals Ltd. A thinker and practitioner, known for his transparent and solution based approach for long term benefits. His areas of specialization are Human Resource Management, Transactional Analysis, Communication and Neuro Linguistic Programming.

Monday 28 May 2012

Put on the Employees’ Shoes and Walk a Mile.
By V.K.Talithaya

In Harper Lee’s book To Kill a Mocking Bird, Atticus the upright lawyer tells his son to not only put on the shoes of the other person, but to walk a little distance. Only that way he would understand and appreciate the other’s point of view. I was reminded of Harcourt’s words in the winter of 2008. There was the urgent need to put on the shoes of my employees and walk a little distance.

When my company has been doing so well that the monthly results have been beyond my expectations, what do I do? Do I tell the employees that they are doing such wonderful work, and let us scale still greater heights? And, then suddenly the impact of the recession is felt. Order books dwindle, and in January 2009 I have orders for less than 50% of what we produced in the previous months on an average. As if that is not bad enough news, I do not see good orders coming for the next three or four months, and the year 2009-10 also is going to be bleak and a difficult one. I have one thousand employees coming from the poorest of the families in the town. Besides, there are about 100 employees in the laboratory, supervisory and managerial staff – all of whom are bright people and many of them who gave up good jobs and joined me.

My employees see that the situation around the industrial area is uncomfortable. Many units are hit by the recession. Many have retrenched employees without calling it retrenchment. There are doubts being expressed by employees with my supervisors if their employment will be safe.

Most of these employees are with us for the last three years – from the inception of our factory. We have spent lot of efforts to train them in doing the delicate (though not very skilled) work – even the lowest of them. The kind of products we make need some degree of dedication from the employees. I want to retain them. I want them to understand that the company cares for them, while at the same time there is an immediate crisis. It is an unenviable choice between the short-term necessity to ensure the health of the company, while instilling confidence in the long term prospects of the company.

The senior management group of the company discussed the issue in detail. What should be our response to the crisis? Employee cost comes to about 25% of the indirect costs, and keeping them on the rolls in these bad times will be too expensive, and may damage the health of the company. Retrenching them may mean they will never return when we need them and to train new batch of employees it will take a year. Moreover, they had done such wonderfully good work in the last six months. They will not be able to see fairness in such a decision. Most importantly, we had decided from day one of the company that we will deal with our employees keeping the highest ethical standards. What would meet that standard in the current situation? Assuming that employees will understand the current recessionary situation is easier said than done.

What came to our rescue in taking the most appropriate decision to meet the crisis was our own policy that we will deal with our employees in a transparent way. So, a consensus evolved during the discussion at the senior management level that if we keep to our policy of transparency we can face the dilemma. Our employees by and large know that the management has been taking them to confidence on most matters of concern to them. The best policy now also would be to wear their shoes and walk that mile

So, we had the next part of the exercise – to understand what could be their concern? Retaining their jobs? Lay-off?

We decided that it would be best to talk to employees directly. And it is best that the CEO himself talks to them. We made a short agenda for the discussion – the global melt-down, its origin, what it means to India and us, an export oriented unit, in particular. How demand has shrunk in the US., why ours  being a highly price sensitive product we can be major sufferers. What are the prospects? What are our plans to face the situation? How, being one of the largest producers of this product, we still have scope to improve productivity and cut costs and so on.

What do we do? In January since we have only 50% orders we will have only fifty percent of the employees working on rotation. But we may still about break-even by stopping the night shift, cutting transport costs etc. Everyone will get full salary for January, because paying them less for the days they don’t work with such short notice would be difficult for them to manage their domestic budget. For February and March if order position goes below 50%. we will work 33%, on rotation. For the days we don’t work we will get 50% salary. When I say we, this includes all of us, not excluding me. We will review the situation end of March. Are you all with me in this? Yes, we are – a resounding response! All the supervisory and management staff enthusiastically agrees that even if they have to work most of the days, they will nevertheless, take the pay-cut as a symbolic gesture!  Indeed, we walked the mile with the employees’ shoes on.

The employees realize that the company is the victim of a situation far beyond its control. They also saw how the company on its own shared the information with them. There were no stealthy plans to get rid of employees. There was cost cutting measures, there were plans to reduce salaries temporarily – but all these were shared with them and done in a transparent manner. It was not a one-off exercise at communication. Walking with the employees’ shoes on for a few miles is what we do every day, and that in return enabled the employees also to walk a mile or two with the company’s shoes on.

Small though we are, we were one of the few companies affected by the recession – we know today that crisis can be managed by walking that mile with the others’ shoes on!

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