In a conversation with Smriti Handa, Regional HR Director - South Asia, Reckitt Benckiser we understand how HR has seen a vast transformation over the years and emerged as a true business partner. She also shares her insights on creating an equitable workforce by incorporating inclusion into the company culture and overcoming the challenges of finding the right talent.
Q. What is the recall of your career journey so far? What were some of the experiences what helped you evolve as a leader?
My career journey is an outcome of my underlying belief that there is no shortcut to any place worth going. We must learn to make choices and live proudly with them.
At a very early stage in my career, I was taught that a fulfilling career is a combination of depth and breadth of experiences that you build. Having followed that advice, I have been fortunate to have worked across operations, recruitment, campus programs, shared services, HR strategy, business partnering, employer brand, talent/performance management, training etc.
I have also had the opportunity to work across different organisational cultures (Indian and European) and multiple industries ranging from FMCG, Healthcare and Telecommunications. It was strategically very fulfilling to have experienced different life-stages of those companies, ranging from sunrise, maturity or growth. Along the way, I went from being a nervous wreck outside the boardroom to a silent observer in the by-lanes of the boardroom to now being an active contributor in the boardroom. Because of these varied experiences that led to personal growth, maturity, courage, and conviction, my journey has been worthwhile.
Q. HR plays a major role in reconciling the interest between Workforce and Management and has emerged as an important strategic function over the years. In your opinion, how does HR create value for the business?
General Perception: HR delivers on softer aspects which are not measurable.
Reality: HR delivers shareholder value.
All enabling functions create value for their internal stakeholders first and external shareholders next, else they lose their sheen. For me, it all starts with the culture of the organisation, where HR is the keeper (not the creator) of the
same. Studies show a strong linkage between culture and employee turnover, productivity and hence business success.
A performance-oriented, forward-looking, and sustainable culture ensures a strong leadership team and vice-versa. Strong leaders in an organisation in-turn ensure fit-for- role and fit-for-culture employees.
These engaged employees then keep contributing to open and transparent ways of working, opportunity to learn and grow, respect for individual choices, performance led the evaluation, and appropriate reward/recognition to say the least. I have explained this with a positive spin. Think of it from your working years, good- bad leaders’ perspective. We all will relate to this. As much as these correlations operate with a positive spiral, they can have a hard-hitting negative ripple effect on culture, leaders as well as employees.
An engaged employee would ensure an engaged customer. If customers are engaged they ensure sustainable growth which in turn leads to profitability. Profitability is the actual delivery of shareholder returns.
This all will sound fluff in case HR is unable to draw co-relations, HR should use analytics to bring this point home in the form of performance analytics, recruitment analytics, culture analytics and beyond.
Q. Furthermore, at many companies, it can be a challenge for HR to communicate how important their work is to the CEO. Why do companies still lag in ranking HR as a top function?
A. HR has been a function which has seen a vast transformation, from being a ‘Personnel Department’ which dealt with
everyday employee grievances to being ‘HR Operations’ that managed hiring and exit processes to now being the ‘Business Partner’ that drives business through the right people and culture. Successful CEOs will see HR as an integral part of their core group realizing that business success is directly proportional to the quality of the workforce and cultural strength. We are generalizing by stating that HR is not rated as a key function across organisations. Subject matter expertise, business-impacting work, ability to make objective decisions, character and conviction of HR function varies across organisations and so does the ranking of HR as a function.
In scenarios where organisations are undertaking the below shift, HR enjoys being part of the CEO’s inner circle:
Successful CEOs will see HR as an integral part of their core group realizing that business success is directly proportional to the quality of the workforce and cultural strength.
DIVERSITY AND INCLUSION
Q. The share of women in the workforce continues to remain low in India. According to you, what are some of the barriers for women in India to work and what would it take to create an equitable workforce?
As per the latest World Bank report, India ranks 95th out of 129 countries on female participation in the workforce. If we were to leave aside women in the agricultural sector, then the percentage is below 20%. In contrast, countries like China and Brazil enjoy 65-70% women participation compared to 27% in India.
Some of the reasons are universal in nature while others are deep-rooted in Indian society. At entry-level, these may range from security & safety and societal norms, where women need to reconcile work with household duties; at the middle level it is about the ‘ticking’ biological clock, inadequate role models to look up to, flexibility and availability of day-care, and finally at the senior leadership levels it is about equal pay and unconscious biases against women assuming the CXO roles.
Stated above are barriers for women to work; however, the journey towards a truly diverse workforce is a thousand miles and begins with one step. The first step being taken is that of “Inclusion”. Inclusion is the achievement of an environment in which all individuals are treated fairly and respectfully, have equal access to opportunities and resources, and can contribute fully to success.
A 2018 study suggests that women who are ‘the only women’ are having a significantly worse experience than women who work with other women. This is a cue to show that the more female role models, more women team
members, and more women bosses enter the chain, the better the chances of the existing women to remain in these positions. For this, all we need is an inclusive culture.
For inclusion to permeate we must create holistic processes of hiring, promotion, recognition etc. For us at RB, gender equality is not treated as a moral criterion but is identified as being an important tool to drive business growth. A diverse workplace is a balanced playing field which leads to diverse idea generation, better execution, and eventually business success.
Q. Speaking of the equitable workforce, building diverse teams throughout an organisation is becoming more of a “must-do” than a “nice to do” for both ethical and business reasons. How can organisations create an inclusive environment where all employees have equal access to opportunities?
A. Let me start with a clichéd quote that still needs to be understood by all “Diversity is being invited to the party, inclusion is about being asked to dance.”
To build diversity, organisations are taking numerous steps – from conscious hiring plans to deliberate succession planning. However, creating an inclusive environment goes beyond policies and processes where we all need to play our part as employees. This would mean being conscious of our biases and opening up our minds to the fact that we all are unique.
Working towards a more inclusive culture, RB launched #BustyouRBias with the aim of initiating and facilitating a conversation around the neuroscience and unconscious biases amongst employees at work.
Here, I will give some simple tips to follow to #bustbias that act as barriers in building an inclusive culture:
• Plan for a prayer room, feeding room, unisex washrooms, medical facility in office premises for diverse employee needs
• Plan for your holiday calendar across religions wisely i.e. Diwali, Eid, Christmas, Mahavir Jayanti, Guru Gobind Singh Jayanti etc.
• Politely advise a shy team- member to share her views in a team-meeting
• Instruct the average performer to take the lead on an important project
• Plan team-lunches instead of dinner outings to ensure that a “mother of 2” joins in
• Encourage junior team- members to share a contradictory point of view in a review
In the end, it is fair to keep reminding oneself, that diverse teams, if included, will perform better, innovate more and further improve economic equality.
A global consultancy report from EY in 2017 recognised RB for including its people and culture as a “strategic input”- along with its brands, knowledge and skills, relationships, infrastructure and financial strength.
Q. In today’s digitalised corporate world AI and cognitive computing are not options anymore, they’re a must. Do you think advanced technology has the potential to transform HR efficiency and effectiveness for the better? Where do you see the biggest challenge for heads of HR?
A. AI is being touted as the next big thing in HR, capable of revolutionizing it such that the business takes notice – I don’t disagree. However, this is not a new trend. HR Analytics has been in place for a long time but has gone unnoticed. What is critical now is – how do you transform AI from merely enabling processes and measuring lead indicators of efficiency, productivity etc. to something which measures business metrics like the relationship between profile-type of employees and employee performance. There’s an ocean of possibilities and surprisingly, only 10% of Fortune 500 companies are using these sophisticated methods.
Having said that, accepting change has never been easy. Some professionals take it in their stride while some feel awkward. The same is true for AI and Analytics in HR. We will have some leaders, some followers and some laggards when it comes to adapting to new ways of working in HR.
HR Analytics has been in place for a long time but has gone unnoticed. What is critical now is – How do you transform AI from merely enabling processes and measuring lead indicators of efficiency, productivity etc to something which measures business metrics e.g. the relationship between profile-type of employees and employee
Albert Einstein’s quote comes handy here, “Human Spirit must prevail over technology”. However, there are times when the Human Spirit will feel challenged across the below spectrum:
• Missing personal conviction (fad or bubble burst?): Read and read more, attend seminars, learn from the front-runners
• Fear of the unknown: Train yourself! Take some risks!
• Lack of support displayed by their business leaders: Take the lead, baby-steps. Showcase small-wins, win the trust and go full-on!
• Availability of funds to scale it: Make choices! Let go of mundane and regular operations. Adapt the new and futuristic.
Q. In this era of constant change and digital skills shortages, finding the right talent has become more challenging than ever for HR. According to you, how can HR address this problem?
A. VUCA world forces us to keep foreseeing the future. HR needs to draw insights from ever-evolving business models, premiumization and personalization, digital penetration, product-process-packaging innovation etc. Depending upon
industry and organisation, HR must layout an inventory of skills that may be needed in the next 5 years. Once this clarity is achieved, it’s a simple check on what exists and where we need to invest. Investment can be in the form of “Build” skills or “Buy” skills. Build capability where the organisation already possesses some strength and buy
capability where an organisation needs expertise.
To build on skills, start early in the form of short-capsule courses to generate interest and then move towards Action Learning to help employees understand the ecosystem. To buy skills, work through various models depending upon need, from gig workers to graduate programs to full-time employees.
To address this, HR must:
• Be considered a business-ally invested in the future growth of the company,
• Be a forward-looking function continuously focused on business and talent market research,
• Be an influencer in the board room where the cost for future skill building is not an expense but an investment
Q. How are you working towards building an Employer Brand beyond conventional ways?
A. When it comes to Employer Brand, authenticity is the key! So, conventional wisdom always works. Just go through W5H to know how I and my team are trying to build this:
What? Employer brand is the identity of an organisation for its employees and prospective employees. We strongly believe that an employer brand must be authentic and true to the core. Efforts towards glamorizing or wrongly representing our brand are counterproductive; people can see through it. Being honest and balanced in our approach is important. For us, it all starts with providing the right set of experiences to our employees who are our
brand ambassadors. Our value proposition is #freedomtosucceed that is experienced by different employees in different ways i.e. as respect for diversity, innovation at the core, purpose-driven work, entrepreneurial opportunities,
Why? Every organisation has an employer brand, whether it actively pursues it or not. In the digital era, if we don’t talk about our employee value proposition, someone else will and that will spread far and beyond. So, we take charge of proactively and “share our story.”
Who? Our employees are the undesignated brand ambassadors of our company’s Employer Brand. It all starts with providing the right set of experiences to these employees. If we get this right, ‘selling’ ourselves as an employer of
the choice is no longer the job of the HR department.
Every organisation has an employer brand. In the digital era, if we don’t talk about our employee value proposition, someone else will and that will spread far and beyond. Building a strong brand starts with creating a workforce that experiences the tenets of our organisational identity.
When? Every moment of truth for an employee must be woven around truth i.e. #freedomtosucceed. We don’t create special occasions for it. Employees succeed when they #bringyourwholeselftowork.
Where? The Employer Brand script or what we call real-time employee experiences can be communicated through various traditional and digital mediums to reach out to our target set. But it all starts with creating a workforce that experiences the tenets of our organisational identity.
How? Start with understanding employee’s perspectives on organisational culture, experiences that matter to them and pull them to work. This helps define the EVP (Employee Value Proposition).
Remember, in all these Employee Belief matters. Be true, credible, relevant, distinctive & aspirational.
Q. Over the last few years, you have been involved in coaching and mentoring other professionals. In your opinion, how can HR help managers to become better leaders?
A. Leadership is about achieving organisational success by influencing others. Leaders develop a long-term vision and motivate the team to realize these goals. To influence and motivate, leaders need to build teams that trust them. As an HR professional, I have always worked with my leaders to help them understand the “Trust Equation.”
Trust= (Credibility + Reliability + Authenticity) / Perception of self interest
Essentially, the amount you will trust your manager/leader is the sum of how credible you believe they are on a subject, how reliable they’ve proven themselves to be over time, and how authentic you think they are as a person, reduced by how much you think they are acting in their own self-interest only.
A leader’s journey may go from denial to realization depending upon his/her maturity levels. HR must enable leaders to traverse this journey smoothly.
Q. It will be great to know your perspectives in a quick jiffy on some day-to-day employee dilemmas, Smriti. Could you help us understand these?
A. As per me, some of the major dilemmas are:
• A bad to the bone boss: It is like a yes/no flow chart. Start with empathy to understand his/her circumstances. If it
doesn’t give out much, then call it out. Have an honest conversation on his/her behaviour. If he/she doesn’t understand, speak to the skip. It works, great! Else, now it’s time to change roles/move on! An uninspiring, non-value
adding the boss can be detrimental in the long-term.
• Team Building: Over good food and DRINKS!
• Raise the bar of your team: Raise your expectations of them first! Provide timely feedback, train them well and
invest disproportionately in potential.
• Code of conduct cases: Never take these cases lightly. These could define your survival.
• Process orientation: Keep it high! But show need-based flexibility since that’s what we do better than robots.
• Declining meeting invites: Haha! For sure make wise choices. Your time is precious.