Source : Hema Ravichandar (The Mint)
In the face of national disasters, can human resource departments across companies work to channelize well-meaning emotion into constructive action?
How strange it (the earthquake) must all have seemed to them, here where they lived so safely always! They thought such a dreadful thing could happen to others, but not to them. That is the way!”—William Dean Howells, A Sleep And a Forgetting
The news continues to flow, though it no longer has the intensity or mindshare grab of the first few weeks. The recent catastrophe in Uttarkashi—now termed by some as the Himalayan tsunami—has informal estimates of loss far exceeding official numbers. As always, a natural disaster, a national threat, or a terror strike bursts upon us and we respond with sympathy to the unfolding tragedy and cries for help. But the real challenge lies in translating this well-meaning emotion into constructive thought and finally, speedy action.
Many messages, over air and in print, solicit contributions. But in this world, bombarded as we are with news, the tendency to shut it out, as unnecessary noise, is tempting. Relief agencies, either directly or through industry bodies or governments in power, reach out to organizations and institutions to contribute. The moot point is, how do companies cascade this message further through the organization and actually get their individual employees to contribute—in cash, kind or time?
Over the years, I have seen both—organizations that succeeded in handsomely rallying the troops to the cause, and those that failed abysmally, and were able at best to only dole out the company contribution without meaningful employee partnership. So what makes the difference?
Success has many reasons. First, organizational Clarity—why it is supporting a particular cause, the kind of causes it would support, the geographic scope and the benefits to be gained—a sunnier future for victims or if one is a cynic, a hallowed place in the sun for the organization. Some organizations that have deputed their leaders to rebuilding efforts swear that it is a “great development tool”, giving them the experience of deep waters and uncharted territories.
In an aside and while on organizational support, multinational companies (MNCs) have a dilemma all their own, in countries where they are not headquartered. Should we or should we not? Will it be seen as politically correct? Are we vested enough in this country’s causes to contribute? How do we explain this to the headquarters (HQ)? All questions that beg clear responses. In such cases there may be overriding reasons, like the proximity of the catastrophe to manufacturing facilities (for example, in the case of Uttarakhand, its proximity to many organizational manufacturing facilities) or the employees desire to contribute, which overrides the “should we, shouldn’t we” game. Managements then usually facilitate at least the collection and deployment of employee contributions. If they are more gracious, they could of course contribute a matching sum to the cause. “We know it may be against company policy to directly contribute. But when a company’s leadership communicates its support for employee volunteerism, we know that our contributions are valued by the company. Employee motivation to come forward and contribute then skyrockets,” said one MNC employee to me.
Consistency in company policy is equally critical, both in organizational messaging and choices. Leaders especially must display sensitivity to the cause consistently both within and outside the organization. One employee narrated his CEO’s sterling external display of commitment for the cause. “But internally he is a different person. The same passion was never on display.” Employees are quick to see this mismatch and draw their own conclusions. “Shouldn’t leaders be themselves role models? Imagine exhorting the troops to contribute, when a cursory scan reveals that none of the head honchos have put their shoulders to the wheel,” said one disgusted employee. Conversely, stellar contribution at the top augmented by championship at all levels, galvanizes the organization to contribute, and ensures success and momentum for the initiative.
Next is the messaging, the design of the Campaign. How does this great intent of the organization get relayed to the “troops” in a manner that they are motivated sufficiently to open their purse strings, their cupboards, and even let the cause nudge out others and proudly reside on their calendars? Why we need to contribute, how we can help and what our contribution will achieve are all key messages to dwell upon. Testimonials, if any, including the leadership-by-example bit, make the initiative inclusive and come alive. Leverage content in the external media but customize the message to resonate with your employees. “The effectiveness of the internal campaign determines the extent of employee contribution,” is a strong argument put forth by those who have seen the spoils. “Spread awareness to employees on what the company will do and how employees can augment that with their support.”
While most campaigns are necessarily reactive, smart organizations go a step further and proactively equip their leaders with important information in case of a disaster. Who can decide whether volunteers are to be deployed, which relief agency is a natural partner of choice, how can volunteers be enlisted swiftly—these are all critical to ensure quick response, especially by local leadership. Subtle or not-so-subtle messaging on the benefits of volunteering—professional development, acquisition of significant leadership skills, greater camaraderie—can also be part of the communication package.
Also Continuity and Closure. Effective campaigns incorporate best practices and learning from past experiences, track the progress of the current initiative constantly and even set up healthy competition among internal teams with the aim of giving their best. Success stories of past initiatives are big motivators. How was an initiative closed? What happened with the contribution? Where in the rebuild stage are the beneficiaries? “We worked through an NGO to help people affected by the tsunami to become self-sufficient. Recently the group was called to sell some of their products in our office,” said one enterprising campaigner. “The high of seeing their contribution, however small, come to fruition can never be underestimated.”
And finally, Commendations. “Reward and recognize employee volunteers; a lunch with the CEO would be nice!” said some. Others voted for benefits like an extra vacation day for a certain number of volunteer hours and public recognition, through newsletters, magazines or town hall meetings. Extra points in the “puts others before self” criteria of the appraisal rating or for more sophisticated organizations in the learning credit system are also possibilities. More responsible roles such as leading Special Weapons And Tactics (SWAT) teams, larger projects with greater ambiguity and pressure, or anointing volunteer stalwarts as corporate social responsibility (CSR) ambassadors of the company are also par for the course. “Or maybe a basket of rewards expressing the gratitude of the company to the employee—hall of fame membership, movie tickets, holiday for two someplace and a value champion award.”
So then once the organization has clarified its contribution purpose, been consistent with its message and intent, campaigned to reach the message to the employee base, demonstrated closure on initiatives promoted in the past and even worked out the commendation plans, then for the million-dollar question—what about the contribution itself, and in the same breath, the conduit to reach it to the needy? What role do those play in galvanizing the employee brigade into action?
Yes indeed, as someone rightly said, “Bad things do happen in the world, …war, natural disasters, disease. But out of those situations always arise stories of ordinary people doing extraordinary things.” —Daryn Kagan.
Hema Ravichandar is a strategic Human Resources Consultant and a HR Thought Leader. She is a renowned Leadership Coach and serves as an independent director and an advisory board member for several organizations. She was formerly the global head of HR for Infosys Ltd.
First published in The Mint.