The violence at Maruti Suzuki India’s Manesar plant, which claimed the life of human resources executive Awanish Kumar Dev, was not an aberration. Many in India Inc’s human resource (HR) fraternity say the incident goes to show how communication between the boardroom and the shop floor has broken down in recent years.
It is a consequence, they say, of Indian industry’s shift from manufacturing to the services sector, leading to the relative decline of industrial relations (IR) as a core priority among practitioners and apprentices. Among them is S Y Siddiqui, chief operating officer (administration) of Maruti Suzuki India. “In a general perspective, the one skill that is on the decline is IR. Young HR professionals are more interested in managerial positions. That is the natural shift that has happened,” he says bluntly. “It’s not only India-specific, though. Globally — in Japan, China and Indonesia — shop-floor assignments are on the decline.”
The services sector has taken much of the talent earlier available to HR functions within the manufacturing space, Siddiqui admits, but emphasises there are still a substantial number of capable people within the vertical.
The problem at Manesar, Siddiqui claims, is not one of industrial relations. It is an issue of “crime and militancy”, which is why the company has declared a lockout at the plant. Yet, others from the HR function feel communication between the top and bottom of the pyramid is failing.
“The level of material desires has gone up (among industrial workers), even while there is growing inequity. Given the state of India Inc today, business is static and companies are under their own constraints. Distrust, miscommunication and external influences like local politics or cultural traits can together become a serious concoction. But, the biggest issue is the breakdown of communication,” says the HR head of one of India’s top three car makers, requesting anonymity.
Part of the problem, says Aquil Busrai, an HR veteran with 30 years at Unilever, Shell and IBM, is the practice has had to adapt to the evolution of the Indian industry. “The services sector grew very rapidly, so we did what was right. New people had to be brought in for new jobs. But you can’t just do that and not pay attention to the bottom of the pyramid,” he explains.
In the past decade, according to Busrai, areas like organisation development, strategic initiatives and leadership pipeline management are where companies and their HR teams have focused. “They have taken the eye off the ball in IR. Young professionals don’t consider IR important any more,” he says. “So, there is a disconnect between the employee and the management today. That is why signals preceding events (like Manesar) are ignored.”
The top car maker’s HR chief admits as much. “There needs to be an understanding at the board level, among the top management and the leadership, that you can’t leave these things only to the IR department,” he says.