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Case Analysis: A Matter Of Values

Firuza could help Sarla as an individual but the same actions done by her as HR manager could be seen as an interference in an employee’s personal life, writes Viju Parameshwar

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Firuza could help Sarla as an individual but the same actions done by her as HR manager could be seen as an interference in an employee’s personal life.

The big issues in this case study on Duwell India appear to be primarily where the boundaries should lie between personal values and the role one plays in an organisation; should the organisation do what is legally correct or what is right; and possibly whether culture, including corporate culture, and social norms have an effect on the choices one makes in these cases.

The management committee (MC) and the Head of Legal, Ajay Deolali, clearly want to do only what is strictly legally necessary – which in this case seems to be: nothing. They want to protect the organisation from legal repercussions (and negative publicity) and from taking actions that could face a legal challenge. Firuza Menon, the HR head at Duwell India, has strong personal values and believes that all individuals should act in their corporate roles similar to what they would do as individuals and that it is incumbent upon corporate leaders to use their positions to change society.

While organisations have to be legally compliant, just following the law is not adequate. I believe values are critical and the organisation needs to go beyond doing nothing. Duwell, therefore, should not follow the path advocated by the majority of the MC and Ajay.

In many western countries, personal lives are kept strictly separate from company life. Nevertheless, various states in the US have passed laws requiring employers to support and help employees who are victims of domestic abuse though not to interfere in their domestic issues.

In November, the New York state attorney general reached a potentially far reaching settlement with Bon Ton stores in a case where a female employee was sent home by her manager after she revealed that her estranged husband had threatened to kill her. This was done to avoid problems in the store but was potentially a violation of law. While not exactly similar to this case it shows that society and the legal framework are gradually changing towards increasing the involvement of organisations in their employees’ domestic problems particularly where physical abuse is involved.

In a paternalistic society like India, provided such a culture has been created over years by the leadership, employees accept and even welcome some involvement of leaders in their personal lives. Looking at the matter from a purely legal perspective and hence taking no action, is not adequate in this case and will result in an erosion of values and culture at Duwell. Equally, very official involvement in such a personal affair by company officials like the HR head could be seen as excessive interference and possibly invite legal action against the company. I would follow a middle path as follows.

Immediately on his return, Abhiram Basu, as MD and boss, should call Mukesh Madhav, and have a frank chat. Considering they have been colleagues in the same organisation for the past 12 years, Mr Basu should have the closeness with Mukesh to allow this. The chat should be positioned as guidance and support, advising him to change his behaviour for his own good and offering him professional counselling support at company expense. The MD, as a respected leader can do this and position it as semi-official, personal mentoring and yet not be seen as interfering. This must be done by Mr Basu as the MD and not delegate to anyone else. It is the line manager’s job and not that of HR to manage tricky situations and, in particular, the CEO/MD’s task to set the tone on values and culture. Mr Basu should, thereafter, also set up a monthly discussion with Mukesh to check on progress, and possibly get him to agree to a joint chat with him and his wife, Sarla, once every few months. In the event of no progress after a few months, legal and disciplinary steps could be thought of. Duwell owes this to Mukesh, as one of their senior employees who is also a top performer. This is noteworthy. Long term employees do need special consideration, more so if it comes with a good attitude. I personally would use attitude as a yardstick, more than performance. Bad attitude deserves no consideration.

The issue here is not one involving gender. Some MC members have already fallen into this trap. The fact that the violence is perpetrated by a man against his wife and that Firuza Menon, who is raising the issue, is a female, easily leads to erroneously labelling this a gender issue. I suggest doing a thought experiment; reverse genders of the key protagonists – assume the violent manager is female and that the HR manager is male. I would suggest that even so, the actions to be taken should not change.

Much as I admire Firuza’s passion and commitment to certain values she needs to be counselled by her boss, Mr Basu, on the difference between her individual role in society and that of an HR manager in Duwell India. The analogy of intervening or not as a bystander at an accident clearly indicates the mixing of these roles in her mind. While it is appropriate for a bystander to help an accident victim, this is not the same as an organisation getting involved in the personal lives of employees. Firuza could help as an individual but the same actions done by her as HR manager could be seen as an unacceptable interference by the company in an employee’s personal life. At the extreme, it could also expose the company to litigation.

In any event, company actions need full alignment with the MD and senior management. Firuza offering Sarla the number of her friend Divya Rathod, who runs an investigation firm, is a well-intentioned, supportive move. However, it could be construed by Mukesh as taking sides against him, the employee. Firuza should have made it clear to Sarla that she was helping her in her individual capacity as this was not discussed with her boss or the MC.

The chats by the MD with Mukesh advocated above is different and is acceptable because of his position, because of respect he should have earned in the organisation, and because Mukesh has been his subordinate for 12 years, which should have resulted in a close relationship.

If Firuza tried to do similar actions, they would not be as easily accepted as she would not have the position, seniority, experience and the level of respect that Mr Basu would have. Mr Basu should explain his point of view and help Firuza understand the necessary separation of her views and actions as an individual versus those as a corporate representative as she appears to have a blurred vision of her boundaries. These could be done in a series of coaching discussions, to help her development without appearing to be reprimanding her.

For instance, after having raised the matter with Mr Basu the previous night, and his saying that he would think about it and discuss it in detail after his return, Firuza was wrong to call an MC meeting. Equally, the MC should also not have discussed the matter without asking whether Mr Basu’s opinion had been sought. Mr Basu should have an emergency conference call with the MC and explain his point of view, what stand the company should take in the matter and his planned actions. In the absence of such a communication, there appears to be a leadership vacuum on this issue, which is the reason for so many disjointed actions and views being expressed with no one (other than Firuza) actually taking ownership for action. Such a call would also ensure the MC is on the same page rather than leave them unclear for the next fortnight while he is abroad. They would also be able to communicate, if they are forced to by circumstances, with one voice.

On a separate note, the MC members seem lacking in leadership qualities, wanting to hide under the law and take the easy way out. They also seem to express opinions casually and were not “taking charge” and moving the meeting to joint action plans. The suggestion made by more than one of them that Mukesh could be sacked for some fabricated reason, is a gross violation of fairness and equity. As the self-styled upholder of values, I am disappointed that Firuza did not oppose this equally vehemently! That such a thought could be seriously considered indicates the need for deep discussions on values among the leadership team.

In summary, the MD needs to take responsibility for culture and values and lead the actions to be taken starting with having a chat with the employee concerned.

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The writer is a CEO in the Freudenberg Group in India. Prior to this he was MD of The Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation. Starting with the TAS he has run businesses for 39 years including 17 years at Hindustan Lever

(This story was published in BW | Businessworld Issue Dated 28-12-2015)