In a market where jobs are still scarce and the IT business still on an upswing, companies would do well to relook at the critical aspect of their brand building process to ensure that the employer brand is not dented for the long term by any short-term actions.
Companies often need to restructure, and somehow such changes in the IT space seem to make headlines! There was one episode in end 2014 where an affected employee made an audio clip of the conversation which went viral.
Let me clarify that I don’t know for a moment that all the material (including the audio clip of the HR team communicating the bad news to a lady employee, and making potentially discriminatory comments in the process) are genuine: the official statement by the Company is phrased blandly, presumably on the basis that to address a specific question will fuel further gossip.
Interesting is also that one of the affected employees has filed a case in a Labour Court, alleging that she has the status of workmen under the Industrial Disputes Act and that the actions amount to retrenchment without notice and due process. It will be interesting to see what comes of that, as and when the court delivers a judgment – and it could have spin-off effects for the entire industry as well.
Line managers know the performance of their team members much better and can comment on performance related issues better; or, if the criteria are not related to performance, can communicate the larger business imperatives better.
Clearly, the employer brand has been affected. How could the company have managed the process better even while meeting a business goal? Some of my thoughts:
- Have clarity around the motives. If it is performance-related, the criteria should be clearly visible and communicated. What constitutes ‘bad’ or ‘under’ performance should be understood. It is perfectly acceptable to take the line that one’s performance is poor relative to peers, thus taking the debate away from the classical notion of what the ratings and assessments per se are. However, this relativity also needs to be backed up with some data – even if anecdotal.
- In a robust, ongoing performance feedback process, news of underperformance is rarely a surprise. If it is a surprise then something in the feedback loop is not working. If there is genuinely no evidence of past communication; a respectful acknowledgement or even apology might be in order. This does not necessarily mean that the decision needs to be changed but it reinforces a position of respect for the individual.
- Get the PR line ready in advance. PR lines work best when they are based on fact, take the external awareness into account and convey the message simply. I am not suggesting necessarily that companies need to proactively send out downsizing or separation signals to the environment. That is effective only when a firm is in a financial or business crisis and the shareholders are looking for signals of corrective action. When a firm is thriving and growing, these PR lines can be held for use in reactive mode and therefore need to be continually updated.
- Understand how the larger environment perceives the situation and remember that some things can be legal, though not justified. To quote one example, age discrimination is not illegal in India, so it is ok to determine selection or separation based on the age of an employee. How it is perceived is an entirely different matter. It can be seen as repugnant and biased and inevitably affects the brand.
- Involve the line in communication. It seems common-sense enough that line managers know the performance of their team members much better and can, therefore, comment on performance related issues better or, if the criteria are not related to performance, can communicate the larger business imperatives better. This could be partial because HR folks are generally not so clued into the business environment but even otherwise is good practice. It surprises me to see how many organisations still solely use the HR department to communicate matters of employment and non-employment.
- And whether it is HR or line (or both) that communicate: train and then train some more. While repeated references to the cite audio clip are tiresome, I could find about three elements in it that would be thrown out in any court of law and that a simple training package with appropriate legal, PR and HR inputs would have taken care of:
- Turns out that one year of a ‘poor’ rating was attributable to maternity.
- Turns out that another year of ‘no’ rating was on account of the employee accompany- ing her partner to an overseas assignment on a career break, which was approved by the employer.
- The employee’s own performance data and how it was viewed in the process of decision-making on separation could not be shared with the employee, because it is ‘confidential’.
In a market where jobs are still scarce and the IT business still on an upswing, chances are that the employer brand may not be affected – though it may still be dented relative to other companies. The implications of the legal action could be completely different. Yet, companies would do well to re-look this critical aspect of the brand – building process to ensure they do not suffer long-term negative consequences.