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Sunday, January 08, 2012

Attrition – Corporate Scourge

Mention it in any sphere of corporate life and reactions are usually strong and possibly adverse. Most people face this word in everyday life and yet never realise what they are facing. Quite a shame, to be honest.

Attrition devolves from the Medieval Latin word, attricioun or attritio which originally meant sorrow for one’s sins that arises from a motive other than love of God. This definition also included the meaning of the act of wearing down or grinding down by friction and further the act of weakening or exhausting by constant harassment, abuse of attack – also known as a war of attrition.

In modern usage and connotation, the word indicates the reduction of staff and employees in an organization through normal or abnormal means, such as retirements or resignations. Attrition could also mean the gradual reduction of a workforce by employee’s leaving and not being replaced rather than by their being laid off.

Under any circumstances, within the harsh strictures of corporate terminology, growth indicating success is an undeniable fact. Any organization losing people or “assets” is considered to be in trouble and hence the strong reactions to this word.

Regardless of the size, dimension or even profile of the company, in today’s world, it is becoming harder each day to retain the top performers – the best and the brightest for the duration of their productive lives. This is never more in sharper clarity than on the corporate battlefields of modern-day India. As a microsm of global business, the Indian corporate scenario makes some rather pertinent points, which should be considered by global market leaders or any entrepreneur worth their salt.

In recent business news, top IT companies like Yahoo, Microsoft etc expressed publicly the issues faced by them in relation to on-going attrition of their top resources. This phenomenon is not sustained or only faced by IT domain companies, but also larger conglomerates like GE, LG and Reliance.

Flat prices of stock post-recession (or is it still on?), vested options for top talent or even aggressive start-ups who are willing to take chances and push compensation market rates higher than actual valuations are causing much heart-burn, acidity and even the odd heart-attacks due to issues of retention.

There are a variety of plans, policies and ideas afoot to counteract such alarming market trends – but attrition has been around since roman times, or should that be Vedic times. We forget this to our disadvantage and complain bitterly about treacherous or un-loyal resources.

Are we a victim to our own plans, policies and ideas?

I believe we are… and here are my reasons;

Inane Rules & Regulations

One of the top issues of frustrated employees of any level or experience are inane rules & regulations. In theory or on fat reports, certain rules sound sensible and possibly even progressive. During day to day activities of a 10 hr average corporate working day, no one has time for inane rules, which don’t contribute to their specific tasks/activities or aid/assist them in fulfilment of the same. When the talent (whether management, marketing, operations, development or whatever teams) starts “complaining” or in worse case scenario’s, “simply following orders” – the organization is in trouble. Talent/resources/assets who do not question or raise voices in processes are hard workers, not smart workers – the smart workers are already packing their bags.

Motivation in Action

Motivation is a big word and another greatly misused word. Motivation does not come from merely sweet talk or pats on the shoulder. Motivation works in deeds not speech. By definition, corporates are organic bodies and having specific articulatory parts. Most of the best and brightest of an organization are never asked if they’re really interested in what they’re doing – everyone is on a deadline and there are too many deliverables. Top talent is never driven by money and power completely – the compensation is important but not a priority. But the greatest motivation is genuine interest & passion in what they do on an everyday basis. It’s the chance to be a part of something BIG, something that would possibly change the world (in whatever small way) or even something that they, the top talent, would feel proud about. It’s not enough to just say, “well done” but needs to be followed up with more chances to showcase skills, learn more and contribute positively.

Cursory Performance Reviews

Ineffective performance reviews, which are rushed and/or vague, usually due to pressing deliverables & deadlines leave impressions that the company just doesn’t care in long term futures with the organization. This leads to issues of the next point…

Career Development & Priorities

90% of employees have no long term career goals or even mid-term goals, leave aside personal development or even specific time-bound priorities. This case is especially so in India where once a student gets a job, the battle is half over. Less than 2% of junior employees and under 5% of middle ranking staff could give you a detailed plan for what they want to do in the next 5-10 years. But, everyone wants to know how much their salaries will increase in the same period! Some of the best people to work with undertake an annual review of focus for both employer and employee, which ensures that there is a cohesive and comprehensive discussion on succession planning and career development. In essence, if your people know that there is a path ahead of them, they are more likely to stick around and see what’s at the end of the suggested road.

Accountability & Responsibility

Delegation is a vast task and an extremely sensitive issue. To delegate work to someone would mean an engendering of trust, reliance upon another at cost to self. If the task is not done properly or not done at all, it’s your neck on the line hence most good resources/assets try to do everything themselves. What they need to be taught is not fear of missing deliverables and unbearable deadlines, but the freedom to mentor and monitor juniors, coordinate with colleagues for successful delegation. In this context, specific accountability and responsibility allotment are key – this is a rock solid answer to fears and a future anchor to successful retention of top assets/resources as they don’t feel over-worked and respect the trust of the organization in them. Avoid trying to tell them how to do their jobs once the expectations are explained.

Peer Equality

A top worker or field man or developer will want to work with someone who is at least of their calibre if not someone who is better than themselves so that they can learn and add to their knowledge/skill base. Top talent are always smart workers and deliver best when competing with others of the same ilk. There is no sense in hiring and retaining people who don’t benefit others as well as themselves. Replacements for top assets should also be with top assets or else, a previously vigorous and effective team would lose momentum and morale. To keep our best & brightest, we need better and brighter people.

Openness and Vision

The smart workers always have ideas for improvement– and a desperate need to have them listened to! However, the majority of their ideas might go against the established corporate vision/strategy. This creates a lot of frustration and feelings of alienation for all such employees regardless of rank, designation etc. If the smart workers feel alienated at every turn and meeting, the organization will be left with a staff of Yes Men who agree to whatever is stated without any personal inputs of worth. There is a need to acknowledge the fact that others can have good ideas and incorporate the best parts of said innovations into over-all strategy. Sometimes the “boss” is not always right although they may be usually right.

Strategic Priorities

New endeavours and approaches should be appreciated as long as they mesh with over-all company goals and targets, regardless of provenance. The challenge in setting up such “incubation schemes” is not in approving the same for the sake of superficial movement but specific commitment till results yield proof of failure. Cursory attempts towards new approaches and a clamped down authoritarian style results in bad situations – space/opportunity should always be afforded, with prudence & caution to try new ideas. If not anything, 1 failed idea with good support would ensure 20 official directives issued without any hassles. And if the idea works, everyone benefits.

It’s never a one-way street in the corporate world. If the employer pays a salary, the employee works for the organization. But, paying a salary is not the same as slavery or family relations – there is a symbiotic relationship at work here with trust, dependence, delegation and belief to be extended in either direction. Top resources/assets naturally have to assume a lot of responsibility for deliveries and deadlines on behalf of the employers – if this equation is not on an even keel, the situation will never be beneficial for either party. However, with the scarcity of “top talent” – which is bound to substantially decrease in relation to demand – the organization, which understands these reasons for attrition would stand a better chance of having people come to them, instead of going to the people.

Processes, Projections and Proactive-ness

Indian corporates are possibly the single most powerful engine of growth in our burgeoning economic advance and it’s a machine of frightful efficiency. Guess our mantra? We can deliver anything and with chutney on the side!

In an economy that is still shaking itself out of the shackles of Nehruvian economics and socialistic import substitution policies, our current generations picked themselves up in the wake of liberalization and globalization. We embraced technology, refused to be seduced by plastic credit and stayed liquid through the worst financial crisis of the decade.

We are brash, talk trash but have ready cash….

India is finding itself, or perhaps Indians are. We are a bunch of self-congratulatory, aggressive and very-much-full-of-ourselves people. We love to say “told ya so!!” and then charge to process a solution. Not much wonder why our corporates are hated, feared and possibly considered alien in structure, thought and processes.

As an expat, an 8 hour working day was laughably easy and overtime was silliness – but then who’s complaining? A boss who is abusive cannot be tolerated and deadlines are set after collective deliberation? This was not heaven, we told each other – it’s a holiday from the real world, OUR world. A world where 12 hour days without overtime are the basic norm and words like employee exploitation are matter of fact, amongst many other “things” that are par for the course.

Like many things that we have learnt from the fabled West, we have learnt how to ensure our profit margins stay healthy. Maximise profits, minimise costs, utilize resources optimally and do all this on a set time-frame, usually condensed and compromised by human frailty and faults – we don’t merely expect the impossible, we take it for granted. 

And what of attrition, employee fall-outs and segmentation – for anyone unhappy with their job, there are 20 or even 200 others who would happily take that job. Pay 100 employees marginal wages and pay a manager top dollar to sustain the product is a very western concept that is losing prevalence in the country of its origin.

“Get off your chair, this is not the bloody governmental bureaucracy that you have inherited and get on with your job” We talk in lacs and crores and refuse refusals – nothing is impossible and haven’t you heard the cliché – I (a)M Possible??!

It is surprisingly easy to say that things have changed in our lives here in India. Much too easy but perhaps easy is as easy does for the possibilities are endless; the requirements still stay the same – the wish for security, substance and respect of labour. And despite everything that has happened in the past 100 years, a majority of our people, educated or not, employed or not, are still struggling for the very same even today.

Success is a state of mind, achievement is merely perspective. Shift your focus, I tell my students and often as not, to myself. The hardest test is the one you don’t know you’re being graded upon – and as I write these lines, I realize that we Indians refuse to grade ourselves. We refuse refusals and in the process refuse to acknowledge ownership. Sometimes it’s the lowly menial who refuses to accept ownership for his area of endeavours and sometimes the proprietor who would rather overlook ownership of his endeavours towards his employees – in both cases, out of baser instincts usually.
We have inherited responsibility from the bitter teachings of a restricted economy; accountability was imposed on our untrammelled spirits to ensure delivery and standards, but we are yet to embrace ownership. Ownership for actions and consequences of the same – especially when we do business or invoke the holy triumvirate of corporate policy, development and growth.
And in this process, how do we take ownership for our ideals and principles? Or do we give them a quick polish when it suits our needs or wants. Do we trot out our mission values and statements only when we showcase our code of business conduct paperwork for the next foreign contract or tender? Do we realize that our capitalistic excesses in making hay while the sun shines is self-destructive towards creating institutions rather than quick profits to retire upon?

But then, do we really BUILD for the future today or is that merely a hoary old phrase? Do we actually expect something to outlast our lifetimes and reach out to touch people we are yet to know or might never know. This internet age states that we can access information at the click or a keystroke – how much of it do we actually value and re-use?

A person’s life is similar to the growth cycle of a company – not merely envisaging the ups and downs of the market and the shifting vagaries of demand & supply economics. Building a company is similar to building a life, a sensible stage by stage progression of choices, none of which are wrong.  And no theory ever devised by the ingenuous minds of facile imagination can ever comprehend fully the rich diversity of actuality or its causality. Except that of the person building the damned foundations for a structure to call their own and he/she definitely takes all the risks and definitely deserves a bigger slice of the cake. But, exactly HOW big a slice are we talking about here?

To blog is to basically stand on a soapbox and explain to yourself how elevated your thoughts are to the rest of humanity. It is perhaps a vain effort to stretch out to oneself in the ravaging clamour of an uncaring world, too busy blogging itself or variations thereof. My blog is to question how we find the balance between the raging inferno of our ambitions and the consequences of our actions. I apologize if I am unable to state more clearly or categorically as I am lost between the two.
*This piece was selected as a Winning Entry for the ‘Viewspaper Express Yourself Writing Competition’*