HR Needs To Move Fast And Be Very Responsive

The role of HR is changing as the digital era sets in and we need to adapt quickly” says Devarishi Deb, CHRO Asahi India Glass Ltd in conversation with The Human Factor.

Q. What has been your journey like in the HR field?
A. My journey started with the multinational company Union Carbide. When I joined they had just come out of the Bhopal gas tragedy and the focus of the company was only on safety hazard and labor law compliances. Hence they would do numerous audits regularly. As a new recruit I too was sent to various locations to do a complete audit of the IR and Labor Laws and that I guess was the best thing to happen to me as it strengthened my foundations.
From there I moved to Koshika Telecom in 1996. The telecom industry was at its nascent stage and there were numerous players. I was given the responsibility of setting up the HR division of the company right from scratch. I had to hire people and also figure out how to retain them as there was a huge demand for them. The moment they went to Alcatel in France got trained and came back, not just the Indian companies but even companies outside India inundated them with offers. So at Koshika I got my first taste of a startup. From here I moved on to Patni computers and then to Ranbaxy. At Ranbaxy I got the opportunity to work in a relatively unstructured environment. That proved to be a great advantage as I learnt a lot on the job. From Ranbaxy I moved to Glenmark , then Quattro (an initiative of Raman Rai) , then to Halonix till I finally joined Asahi Glass.
They were looking for someone to set up their HR not just for Asahi glass but also its group companies. Asahi glass has two major businesses –the auto glass business and second is the architectural glass. So it was a fairly large portfolio and when I took charge it was very encouraging and motivating when I met the MD and he said I had the full freedom to implement whatever I thought was necessary. He said he had full faith in my ability and would be glad to help in whatever way was needed. As an individual I really love the feeling of empowerment and freedom and this job gave me just that.
At Asahi I realized that the company lacked structure . So the first thing I did was implement processes and build structures. I was met with the usual resistance but with time I could convince them. I hired fresh talent and slowly inculcated an environment of problem solving and ownership. I also overhauled the goal setting process. Soon I saw a lot of improvement in the satisfaction level of the employees which increased from 50% to more than 70%. This has been the best part of my journey.

Q. What were the challenges you faced?
A. Getting people to accept change is always difficult. At Aasahi Glass too change management has been the big challenge. People were habituated to work in a particular way and hence resisted any kind of change. What they failed to see was that we needed to benchmark with the world outside and there was no point in working the way we did 5 years back or ten years back as that may not work in the current scenario. Once the people saw the advantages and benefits of the new ways of working they became more receptive and we could convince them to change.

Q. What are the challenges HR faces in the digital era?
A.    Everything today is instantaneous. Thanks to the various social networking platforms like WhatsApp, Facebook etc. People are very well connected and informed. To keep pace with the changing times HR too needs to move fast and be much more responsive to the needs of the workforce. Today things like annual surveys are passé. HR is expected to have a spot on understanding of things, trends, situations and has to have the ability to react and respond quickly.
I however feel that very often we tend to overdo the importance of the digital era. Take the case of manufacturing. A large part of the work force is still the blue-collared workers and here its Unions and IR (industrial relations) issues which pose a bigger challenge to HR than any other issues. Here its manpower planning which is a bigger challenge. So things like , how many should be your fixed term employees , how many should be permanent , how many should be outsourced, how much should you automate certain parts of the business to ensure that your business risk is mitigated, should you have one large factory or should you have smaller setups where your risks are much lesser, are going to be very important decisions to be taken.
That said there is no doubt that digital has and will continue to change and improve the way we work in the future. Digital will play a big role in hiring and retaining new talent, in shaping their careers, in expectation and goal setting etc. Digital will integrate the whole HR system and reduce our work multifold and increase the speed of decision making .
Thanks to the digital era today large amounts of data can easily be analyzed and accessed by multiple people, making dialogues with multiple people in multiple locations very easy. With so much information so readily available it has also made the workplace more open. So yes, HR needs to adapt to the digital age as in the long run it will improve the quality of decision making and also increase the involvement and engagement level of people.

Q. As an HR leader how do you manage diversity? What is its impact on an organization?
A.     Diversity depends a lot on the kind of business you are in. Again I go back to the manufacturing companies. Here many a times maintaining gender diversity can prove to be a challenge. Things like night shifts, remote locations etc. pose a threat to the safety of the female workers and hence one tends to hire more men in these kinds of jobs.
However age diversity on the other hand really helps in maintaining good industrial relations. One of the most important ways of maintaining a proper balance of workforce is to have people from different age groups in your company. When there are people from a very young age group and with similar backgrounds working in one location its like a time bomb waiting to explode. While people from different backgrounds and different age groups bring with them a maturity level that helps to internally council and coach the young people.
Diversity does play a very important role both at the IR level as well as the HR level. At the HR level t makes the organization more open to new ideas. When you are dealing with people of varied age groups from varied backgrounds your ability to comprehend, assimilate and accept new ideas increases which benefits everybody in the long run.

Q. As an HR leader what is your advice to organizations on retaining their best talent?
A.     Its clear that today’s new generation of workers, especially those just out of college are very aspirational. So as an HR head before hiring you need to keep a few things in mind.
First – be very clear yourself about the role you require that person for and hire accordingly. If the role demands that you need someone to manage the shop floor work force then you need to target people who have that ability to manage that kind of a work day in and day out. Maybe you should not go to a place where you find people who have aspirations to be in R&D or to be in some kind of a techno-commercial role. So before hiring do a proper manpower planning and mapping.
Second– When you do get the person on board have realistic expectations. Remember however great your company and your HR practices not all of them will stick around. If experience shows that only five out of the ten hired will stick around then hire accordingly.
Lastly – Inculcate a sense of ownership in the line management team. Train them to hold on to and retain people. Create an open environment where you can have a constant dialogue with the young talented people and understand how they are perceiving their future and take corrective actions whenever necessary.
That said there is no 100% retention formula. One needs to keep communicating and planning.

Q. How can a company attract the best talent?
A.    The best talent is most often the one that you have grown within the organization. I would always suggest hiring fresh talent from campuses and grooming them, training them and slowly moving them up the corporate ladder. These people blend well with the culture of the organization and have a deep sense of belonging.
Lateral hire of course cannot be avoided completely because there will always be a requirement for certain experience sets and certain new expertise which you don’t have internally. Nevertheless we should try and avoid it as much as possible. It tends to create a dissonance within the organization because when you get people from outside who may or may not fit culturally with your organization they leave and after a few years you may find you are back in the same situation.
Most importantly when a person comes and he leaves it sort of disturbs the parity within the system. So only as the last option hire from outside . The focus should be to build the culture internally and give people internally the opportunity to develop and grow.

The best talent is most often the one that you have grown within the organization. I would always suggest hiring fresh talent from campuses and grooming them, training them and slowly moving them up the corporate ladder

Q. What advice would you give young candidates to help them get noticed during an interview?
A.    I would like to break my response into two parts. When it comes to freshers it’s the personality and the extra curricular activities that matter more than the academic records. Recruiters look for candidates who have the ability to work with others, who are inquisitive and have the ability and the willingness to un-learn and re-learn. In today’s fast changing times the most important quality is the ability of the candidate to adapt quickly.
When it comes to lateral hire what is most important is to ascertain if the candidate can fit into the culture of the organization. If your are hiring him for a specific technical expertise then you need to ensure that he has the required qualifications. You also need to be careful in assessing if he considers the job his aspirational one or is he just using it as a stepping stone to something bigger. So candidates should highlight their qualifications and experiences and their ability to fit into the organization’s culture if they want to get selected.

Q. Any advise you would like to give to the professionals who are joining startups or owner driven organizations?
A.    For my HR folks in startups I would say don’t go overboard with your financial spending because one of the most important things in a start up is to be very conservative in your cash spend. Sometimes in startups there is this tendency to go overboard and hire people from top most colleges and pay them fantastic compensation. You need to carefully assess what is the return you expect from a person and hire accordingly, since people cost is a large chunk of the total cost.
Secondly it’s important to do a proper manpower planning. Be very clear how many people you need and hire accordingly. Quickly hiring and ramping up and then asking people to go creates a very negative brand image for the organization.
Last but not the least don’t forget to focus on the basics. In our quest to implement big HR initiatives very often we forget our basics. We must never forget that at the end of the day its exciting and enriching work what motivates people and binds them to an organization. So create that kind of an environment. Also people with an entrepreneurial mindset are best suited to join and thrive in a startup.