ID-100248393I got something to tell you / I got something to say
I’m gonna put this dream in motion / Never let nothing stand in my way
When the going gets tough / The tough get going

I’m gonna get myself ‘cross the river / That’s the price I’m willing to pay
I’m gonna make you stand and deliver / And give me love in the old-fashion way (Billy Ocean, When The Going Gets Tough, The Tough Get Going)

I have been following the Infosys story with fascination over the past few months. The company has been in the news, usually making headlines for- arguably the worst possible reason –record levels of attrition. The media reports would have you believe that employees, at all levels, are leaving the company in droves. There have been enough interesting movements at the top as well, with Narayan Murthy coming back for a while to find a CEO, and Vishal Sikka finally taking over as the first non-founder CEO in August. One expected things would improve from then on, and though all the right noises are being made, its early days yet. Course correction measures that NRN will have put in place, would possibly still need time to show results and Vishal has been at the helm for just over a month – even middle level managers are given 90 days to get going!

In spite of media and analyst reports stating that the company continues to be in denial about their attrition problem, I was quite impressed with the moves that the current CEO and his team seem to be doing – to stem the flow of employees and bad publicity. (Nothing saps employee motivation than, opening the newspaper everyday to find some more news about how the company is losing people at record rates).

Though I wasn’t excited with the hikes and the mass promotions (I am sure there was enough data justifying that action), the decision to crowd-source suggestions for improvement (and calling it murmuration was a masterstroke!), the call to increase frequency of promotions were all clearly the actions of a CEO who wants to put his finger on the pulse of the organization and is on the job at fixing it!

I thought things were shaping up nicely till I came across an article(reference #3), outlining how employees who “hit the exit button on the company’s internal e-separation system receive an automated mail from Sikka, that captures the transition underway to re-energize the $8.2billion IT firm.”

Now that one made me go hmm…

One wonders why only the employees who have decided to quit, are the ones getting a peek into the transition plan. Another media article had earlier reported that Vishal will unveil his growth plan in Mid October.

Maybe the article (reference #3) left out more than it told, but if this is true, then I think the auto-mailer is a mistake – one that can undo a lot of the good, that the management is doing towards engaging the workforce at this point in time. Automated mail-responses silently scream “don’t really care”, even if they have been sent with the best of intentions. In my opinion they are good for acknowledging that your complaint about the phone bill has been received, not so much for retaining an employee!

The article goes on to state the mail does ask the exiting employee to schedule a chat with unit leadership ..’should they want further clarity.’

Double hmm….

(Disclaimer: Infosys didn’t respond to queries from the paper, so its my assumption that the mail and its stated content are accurate and have been verified. That assumption of course might be misplaced.)

Employee engagement in difficult times:

The challenges of engaging with the workforce, when the company is going through a phase of internal turmoil, are very different from those that come when the market conditions are tough. A cynical view of the situation is to assume that, employees who are ‘good’ will leave a troubled organization and the those staying put are the ones who can’t get a better offer anywhere. Let’s be clear, that is pure nonsense.

A more realistic opinion is that, even when employees leave an organization in turmoil, it’s mostly because they are not able to see a clear picture of the future. It is up to the management to paint the picture and make it attractive. So those employees are literally leaving the managers, not the company. And when that is the driver for attrition, sending an auto-mail may not quite cut it.

Employee Engagement is often oversimplified by stating that, higher engagement automatically leads to better productivity. Engagement is not a unitary construct and is more an overarching theme, which includes job satisfaction – but is not just that.

There are a few things that companies can do to engage with their employees when things aren’t quite going the way it is supposed to. Here’s a short list:

Ask employees for candid feedback (and act on it!): Asking the employees candid feedback on what they think is broken and what they think needs to be done to fix it, is the easiest way to get to the root of the problems. It is imperative for the leadership to strip away the layers separating them from the ‘guy-on-the-frontline’ and get a sense of what everyone feels. Town-hall meetings are a good way to get the ball rolling, but these have limitations in efficacy, especially because a vast majority tends to be non-vocal and it’s not always the ones who talk the most who have the best ideas or feedback.

Today companies can easily leverage the power of technology and have an online feedback system where people are encouraged to post exactly what they feel and they can choose to be anonymous if they so prefer. Again, the top leadership should be seen participating directly! (Steve jobs may not have been the most polite customer service agent, but his very public email ID helped him keep close tabs on what people were saying about his company and its products.)

Having a plan to act on the feedback received is critical – especially in an organization where employees feel that the leadership is not in synch with them. When employees sense that, their concerns are not just being heard, but also acted on – it works magic for their motivation and for organizational outcomes. For feedback that can be easily fixed, the leadership should cut through the organizational red-tape (Yes! There will be plenty of that even when everybody knows it’s a crisis) and make it happen. For suggestions that can’t be implemented there has to be an open and candid explanation as to why it can’t be done. These actions will go a long way towards assuaging the immediate concern that, most employees will have that “management doesn’t listen”.

Create a long term plan and paint the picture clearly:

As I mentioned before, companies don’t become a bad place to work overnight. Uncertainty about the future is like flu – it is extremely infectious and it puts people out of action. Eventually when things get really bad, they start to quit. Nobody wants to work for an organization that doesn’t have a plan. If the only target you are looking at is the next quarter’s numbers and you don’t care if those numbers are met by writing software or selling stuffed toys, then people will leave you! (Maybe the ones good at selling stuffed toys might stay back, but you don’t get to be an industry bellwether that way)

Bad times don’t last forever. Unfortunately people tend to forget that bit and everyone paints the gloomy picture in a slightly darker shade with each passing day. As a leader your primary task is to show your dedicated and loyal workforce the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel (not just the ones who are leaving you).

Its hard work! It is not enough to paint a picture with broad brush strokes; you have to paint one that is inspiring enough for people to repose their faith in you. The challenge here is for the leader to understand that people who are committed to their jobs and are good at what they do may not be necessarily committed to the organization and those who are extremely committed to the organization may not be the right ones to fix the problems.

 Kill the “What’s in it for me attitude”, commit to your core values:

Shake-ups are good, but only when they are aligned with the core values and vision of the organization. When employees and leadership are aligned around the core of what drives their actions, the superficial concerns about pay, promotions, uncertainty about the future et. al. fall by the way side. The discussion then becomes about what the company is doing on a daily basis and how that matches up against the stated values and vision. If your base is flexible and open to interpretation depending on the latest crisis, either internal or in the market place, then there is little for employees to anchor their faith in.

Empower the managers and create a groundswell of engagement:

In times of crisis, a common reaction of leaders is to consolidate and centralize all decision making. While this approach is correct in certain times (e.g. you have been hit with a big lawsuit), in a situation where you are battling employee disengagement, this might actually prove counterproductive. In fact by empowering managers and team-leaders way down the hierarchy to recognize and reward good work will help to dispel the perception that the organization doesn’t care. As I have written before on this blog and other places, cash and large annual bonuses is not the solution. The rewards and recognition have to be open, transparent, public, relevant and timely. There is enough research to prove that employees value peer recognition much more. Companies can easily leverage technology platforms to provide, social recognition to their employees, irrespective of where they are based and dramatically improve the efficacy of their rewards budget.

One last thought on compensation. When a company is facing a problem that is expected to be fixed by pay-rises and mass promotions, it would not be a far-fetched assumption that employees have issues with pay discrepancies. When companies grow large, pay-revisions, adjustments, salary pegs to which graduate school you went to, one-time adjustments, bonus payouts, retention payouts etc all make the pay structures a convoluted mess. I have seen many cases where people go to HR complaining about they pay being (far) lesser than a colleague (usually a lateral hire) doing exactly the same task. And often the response they get is – ‘compensation is confidential information, why are you discussing it?’ You can see what this is going to do for motivation!

A crisis also offers a hidden opportunity for leadership to clean up and become totally transparent about their compensation policy. You may not want to go to the extremes of the start-up Buffer, but if your compensation policy is good, then nobody is going to have a problem with it when you make it public. If it sucks, then well, hiding it isn’t going to solve anything.

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate!:

There really is no way around it. Uncertainty is worse than bad news communicated clearly. Not telling staff and investors the realities of the situation and the action being taken to solve it, breeds mistrust, suspicion and fear. If you expect your staff to place their faith in you and stick with you while you guide the ship out of choppy waters, then it’s fair that you repose your faith in them to understand ground realities and appreciate being informed upfront. There is nothing worse for engagement than having to read, about a drop in revenue, profit or increased attrition in the morning paper while just the previous evening your manager was assuring you that everything was “just-hunky-dory.”

And finally,

Publicly support your employees:

There is no time like a crisis to reinforce the message to the employees that, the company cares. Use the social intranet (you do have one, right?) to spread messages of success stories. Make the customer wins a big deal, not just a number to be counted towards the sales target. Open up and let everyone know how the deal was won, what the challenges were, and what strengths helped the company to win the deal. These stories go a long way to help employees get over their doubts about how the company is doing and give them a constant source of motivation. The visible support – especially in tough times – builds trust and generates loyalty and goodwill for the company.

The last word:

Employees are the most critical assets a company has and involving them in the overcoming challenges that the company faces will serve to deepen their commitment and creates the foundation for long-term success. When leaders can instill a sense of confidence and accomplishment in employees during difficult times, it helps to break the downward spiral that is often fuelled by inaccurate media reports.

Engaged employees lead to better performance, which leads to increase commitment to the organization and sets in motion an upward-spiraling growth cycle.

While stemming the flow is definitely a matter of priority, the real focus should be on the ones that are staying put. They are ones who are giving the organization a second chance, the ones who believe that whatever is happening is a short-term problem and that the company will emerge better and stronger from the crisis.

Vishal and his team have their task cut out and I am sure Infosys will once again emerge as a much admired company – minor hiccups like automated emails aside.

Interesting times lie ahead.

References and acknowledgements:

Image courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net

  1. Engagement special: Veronica Hope-Hailey on defining engagement, HRMagazine, 09 Apr, 2013
  2. Introducing Open Salaries at Buffer: Our transparent formula and All Individual Salaries, Joel Gascoigne, December 19, 2013, Bufferopen
  3. Vishal Sikka reaches out to exiting Infosys employees, Shilpa Phadnis, Times of India, Sep 11, 2014
  4. Vishal Sikka shortlists 70 ideas from crowdsourcing initiative, The Economic Times, Sep 11, 2014
  5. Infosys is like my middle child, says NR Narayana Murthy, Dibeyendu Ganguly, The Economic Times, Sep 5, 2014
  6. Infosys riding on Vishal Sikka’s anticipated turnaround strategy: P Phani Sekhar, The Economic Times, Sep 4, 2014-09-13
  7. Vishal Sikka inherits an Infosys with strong cultural setup: KV Kamath, Ashish K. Mishra, Leslie D’Monte, liveMint, Sep 3, 2014
  8. Infosys to unveil growth plan by mid-October: Vishal Sikka, The Economic Times, Sep 2, 2014
  9. Vishal Sikka’s 5-point strategy a hit at Infosys, Varun Sood & Jochelle Mendonca, The Economic Times, Aug 18, 2014
  10. Attrition-wary Vishal Sikka promotes 5000 Infosys employees, Moneycontrol.com, 08 Aug 2014
  11.  Confident of Infosys’s future: Vishal Sikka, Anirban Sen, liveMint, 31 Jul, 2014
  12. Infosys attrition at all-time high, The Hindu, 15 April, 2014
  13. Is employee attrition the biggest challenge for Infosys? Shishir Asthana, March 13, 2014, Business Standard

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