Don’t get into HR if you lack empathy

This post first appeared in DNA India on 13th July, 2017.

Last week, Twitter was abuzz with a viral audio clip from an employee of Tech Mahindra. The audio clip included a conversation between an HR professional (although I must admit that in this particular case, the word is used in a very loose sense) and an employee where the HR person gives an ultimatum to the employee to either resign immediately or be fired unceremoniously. What struck me was the utter lack of empathy on the part of the HR manager towards the employee. I agree that HR professionals are often asked to deal with with the unpleasant task of asking employees to leave.

However, what one would expect from them is at least a modicum of both sympathy and empathy when asking employees to leave.We have moved away from the days of the ‘personnel’ manager. In those days, with mainly manufacturing industries, the personnel manager’s job was essentially what is euphemistically known as ‘labour relations’. There were no employees. There was the management and then there was labour and as shown in movies in those days. The management was always at loggerheads with the ‘labour’ and trying to gauge them out of what was rightfully theirs. The personnel manager was thus often perceived as a cross between Darth Vader (from Star Wars) and Freddy Krueger (from A Nightmare on Elm Street). Today’s HR managers are a far cry from those days (or at least ought to be). They are supposed to be seen as friends and as shoulders to cry on as employees make their way through the organisation.

While there is a lot of noise these days about using data to make people decisions, I also believe that above all, an HR manager should be one who truly understands human emotions with a high emotional quotient. While there are lots of great HR managers, the few bad apples are enough to tar a profession already seen as divorced from the workforce’s problems. Given the speed with which bad news travels, stories like these can have a huge impact on the reputation of the organisation if corrective action is not taken immediately.

There was one redeeming story coming out of the whole sordid episode though. Mahindra Group CMD Anand Mahindra showed great leadership by personally taking responsibility for the issue and made a very public apology to the individual on Twitter. This drives home the fact that the episode is not necessarily representative of the culture within the larger organisation with the chairman himself coming out very strongly in support of the employee. The challenge lies in making sure that this message percolates through the organisation so that other employees don’t have to face similar situations.

If not, there could well be a flight of talent from within the organisation.

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