Nov 27, 2008

HR - Work-Life balance ?

Shyamal Majumdar

CEOs may be over-reacting while handing out the bad news and expecting employees to work more for a lot less.

Over 500 emails in your inbox, triple-booked in sales meetings every hour, plus global conference calls at 2 am. If this reads like your daily schedule, maybe you are not doing enough. A little more hard work is in order at a time when your company has downsized staff and your targets have become higher.

So what if your perks have been snipped, or the CEO has started asking whether you are structuring your day productively enough? A senior manager in a private sector bank put in his papers last week after his boss told him that he has the IQ of an eraser. The boss also said that he trusts him the way he would trust a five-year old behind the wheel of a car.

Sounds depressing? Your only confidence-booster for the moment could be to just remember those good old days — the past four years to be precise — when the same CEO was asking you to maintain a work-life balance and cheering you up constantly just to make sure that it wasn’t the last time that you were walking out of the main gate.

In case this is making you feel stressed, here’s a small consolation: you may consider yourself plain lucky just to have a job at a time when layoffs have truncated staff and morale is in the toilet.

In his book, The Management of Management, R K Laxman had a cartoon which showed a grey-haired man in silk tie pushing a cartload of scrap inside the company’s plant. The factory supervisor is seen explaining to his juniors that the management has sent the gentleman here in accordance with a new order that every bit of “idle capacity” should be utilised.

An HR consultant, specialising in training courses for senior managers in Indian companies, says he has been showing a series of these cartoons every year to his “students” just to lighten things a bit. For example, one of the cartoons shows a “kind” CEO telling a senior executive sitting on a peon’s chair that this new assignment is no reflection of his capability!

“Earlier, people used to laugh heartily. But now, I can sense the uneasiness as soon as the cartoons appear on the big screen. I have stopped showing them these days,” he says.

That’s understandable, as the economic slowdown has prompted a near-automatic reflex on serving bitter pills: Hunker down, reduce head count, and cut every cost you can. Predictably, Indian companies have gone in for multi-tasking (do at least two person’s work for the price of one), extended working hours (12-hour days are not unusual anymore), reduction of variable pay (up to 30 per cent) and lower entry-level salaries (quite a few engineering graduates are being offered Rs 7,000 monthly CTC compared to an average Rs 30,000 a year earlier).

Though very few Indian companies are talking openly about pink slips (remember the Jet Airways disaster?), the fact is people are being persuaded to go quietly. In general, the principle that is being followed is: last-come, first-go, meaning the forced departures are beginning with trainees or those who are on probation.

In such a situation, the old catch-phrase ‘work-life balance’ has taken a backseat. Introduced in the mid-1980s, the phrase was used to describe the extent to which workers/executives are able to tend to personal and family needs, in addition to their professional responsibilities. Over the last few months, more and more people are having to spend more and more time at work, and less and less time on “life”.

While some of these bitter pills are necessary, HR consultants say some companies are over-reacting and creating a fear-psychosis in office. One consultant says one of his clients recently told him to “cut out the crap” on talent retention etc. The promoter said he thinks the senior managers in his company have nowhere to go and should be grateful to him for having their jobs intact.

That may well be true in the short-term, but what happens when things turn around? “If you are making your employees — especially the key ones — feel small, they will give it back to you when the job market opens up. The perverse pleasure of getting back at your employees who are vulnerable at this point may be too short-sighted an approach,” the consultant says.

Good companies are going in for unvarnished communication with their employees. They are cutting out rumours by being as candid as possible about where the company stands. A CEO’s impersonal, sugar-coated message on the intra-net is just not enough, and HR consultants say companies must have enough empowered people at the top who can explain the numbers to others and how everyone can play a role in discovering opportunities.

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