Sunday, April 5, 2015

Who was unethical - The customer or employee?

Below is a fictionalized case study that presents dilemma faced in real organizations. And written by me is the recommended solution to the problem. This has been published in Business Manager Magazine April 2015 edition.

Future Tense is a medium-sized electronic company located in a metropolis. It markets popular brands of home appliances like air conditioners, refrigerators, washing machines and microwave ovens, and undertakes post-sales maintenance. The policy of the company is to attend to the faults within 24 hours if the customer is within the city limits and within 36 hours if the customer is located outside the city limits. Obviously, the maintenance department is completely stretched and always works against stiff targets. Mr Anil Kumar is working as one of the executives in the post-sale maintenance department. He has twelve mechanics in his team. It is his responsibility to depute mechanics to attend to the complaints of the customers after they report for duty in the morning. 

The company has a  policy which indicates zero tolerance on unethical activities of the employees warranting dismissal from services. Company believes in doing business with transparency through ethical means.

The other day, Rahul, one of his most trusted and efficient employees, was assigned the duty to attend the complaint of one of the long-standing customers, Mr Suresh, whose air conditioner had developed a fault.  After attending and rectifying the complaint, rahul reported the complaint as satisfactorily closed and submitted the written report also. As a part of after service satisfaction check of customer, when  after service telemarketing employee called on suresh and verified about the airconditioner service, fault, time consumed, part replacement/repair, technician behavior etc, the customer told telemarketing employee that he was not all satisfied with the service, technician did not do much , taken money from him for replacement of one part, did not give him receipt . He also did not sign any satisfaction report. The A/c was still not functioning well. The customer also told that the technician requested him not to call office in case of  any trouble but instead call on his personal mobile number to do service and repairs. The technician gave his personal mobile no. to the customer.

At the end of the day, The after service telemarketing team employee opened the “concern form” of the customer and not all incident and submitted to Mr. Anil. On enquiry it was found the rahul was absent from duty.

When contacted on phone, Rahul informed Anil that the sudden illness and the subsequent hospitalization of his daughter was the reason for his inability  to take leave in advance and inform him about absence. He denied all allegations of the customer and said that satisfaction report was signed by him and it was he who requested him to purchase the part from open market and replace in AC  for which he gave money which he did. Rahul informed that Customer told him that earlier also other technicians did the same practice. Rahul pleaded that he did not do it with any wrong intention but only to earn the customer loyalty for company. He also explained that customer asked for his personal mobile no. in case of urgent call that’s why he gave his no.  . He also pleaded with Anil Kumar to help him out in this matter. However, the company has uncompromising policy that view dereliction of duty by employees for any reason as a major misconduct warranting immediate suspension. Adhering to the policy, Anil Kumar reported the matter to the higher authorities, who promptly suspended Rahul pending a full enquiry. The news of Rahul's suspension created widespread resentment among other technicians who sympathized with Rahul. But Anil Kumar justified his action by saying that any compromise on that ethical policy would have undermined not only the ability of his team to adhere to the after sales service policy and co. image set by the company but also the business profits itself.. He also felt that this kind of unethical behaviour would set a bad precedent, eventually bringing disrepute to the company. 

Questions for discussions and solutions:

1. How do you view the whole incident that resulted in the suspension of Rahul? 

Anil Kumar has strictly gone by the rules & policies of Future Tense Electronics Company. The Company believed in doing business with transparency through ethical means. Anil had applied the disciplinary measure when it needed to be applied. Once the customer’s complaint came on record and was brought to his notice by the after-sales representative and upon further internal inquiry by Anil, it was found that Rahul was absent from work, Anil had no choice but to suspend Rahul from duty pending a full inquiry.

Anil Lead by example. Research shows that Managers morality level determines the degree to which employees perceive the organization as ethical or unethical. For managers, the implication is clear: if you want your employees to act morally, start by acting morally yourself. This is particularly important for direct line managers which in this case was that of between Anil & Rahul.

Anil Kumar's actions are justified given the fact that any compromise on the ethical policy of the Company would have undermined not only the ability of his team to adhere to the after sales service policy and company image but also the business profits itself. Anil also felt that this kind of unethical behaviour would set a bad precedent eventually bringing disrepute to the company. Hence he had no option but to temporarily suspend Rahul from duty. 

2. If you were Anil Kumar, how would you deal with Rahul's lapse? 

Anil after coming to know of Rahul’s lapse should have looked at both the sides of the story, analyzed the same and then should have taken an well-informed decision. As Manager of Rahul, first thing is to trust him as a subordinate. Anil should have listened to Rahul’s side of story and determine whether he is telling the truth, is he being honest or are there any flaws in his version of the story? If Rahul claims that the customer has signed a satisfaction report, then Anil should have asked to see a copy of it and verified the claim of Rahul. 

Rahul claimed that his act was in best interests of the company and to retain a loyal customer. Hence this claim of Rahul should also be taken into consideration before taking any further action. If the act was indeed in company’s interests, then Rahul could be forgiven or let off but with a warning that the company will not tolerate such acts or report of incidences any more. This incidence should also act as a learning for other representatives as to what is to be done in such a scenario when dealing with such customers and what is the company’s stand vis a vis it.

Rahul was a trusted and efficient employee of the company as also was Mr. Suresh – a long standing customer of Future Tense Company. Anil could have had a dialogue with  Mr. Suresh also and cross-verified the claims of Rahul by counter-asking questions. It is not that the company does not trust it’s customers but this questioning was necessary since the act resulted in dereliction from duty of Rahul. It is also to be noted that as per the customer Mr. Suresh – it was a standard practice of all the mechanics to provide personal service to them in order to save on costs and earn some money for themselves. Mr. Suresh very well knew this and he encouraged this by saying that all earlier technicians also followed similar methods and so should Rahul.

This point is also to be investigated by Anil as to whether such malpractices really occur. Then the malaise runs deep, the problem lies in the system and the policies within the company and is just not with the case of Rahul who is just a cog in the wheel or rather the system. 

3. Do you see any lacuna in the ethical component of the rule that imposes suspension for dereliction of duty? 

A policy measure could have been in place that if an employee of the company is confronted with a situation that presents an ethical issue like in the case of Rahul dealing with the customer Mr. Suresh, he can seek guidance openly (open-door policy) from his superiors on how to handle it. 

Also it is not clear as to what is the policy of the company in terms of reporting breach of ethical behavior of others like how the customer Mr. Suresh that it is a standard practice that all earlier technicians also purchased parts from open market and gave their personal mobile number in case of further service requirements. Hence if this was happening quite regularly, why wasn’t it reported earlier or it did not come to notice. Did it come to notice only when the part supplied from the open market by Rahul turned out to be faulty and hence Mr. Suresh’s endeavor to save himself some money go waste and hence he turned in his frustration to Rahul and to the company. This aspect needs to be also looked into.

The company could provide to their mechanics company mobile phones and disallow usage of personal mobile phones during work or giving them to customers as a policy. Only company contact details including mobile numbers to be printed on visiting cards. By doing this, if an employee leaves the company, customer’s contact details remain with the company itself.

4. What is the policy measures required for the company to deal with such situations in the future?

Create a culture of caring: Create an altruistic culture. Although organizational culture cannot be created overnight, research has demonstrated that a caring culture prevents unethical work behaviors, whereas a culture of self-interest promotes them. What matters is persuading employees that the organization truly values generous, selfless behaviours.

Invest in business ethics training: Most companies can influence employees’ ethical choices via explicit educational programs. Businesses that implement formal programs to support ethical choices have reported decrease in counter productive behaviours and misconduct rates, as well as increase in employee satisfaction.

Reduce employee’s temptation: Managers can help employees who are less capable of exercising self-control by surveilling and controlling them a bit more.

Leading by Making Scars

Below is a fictionalized case study that presents dilemma faced in real organizations. And written by me is the recommended solution to the problem. This has been published in Business Manager Magazine March 2015 edition.

Vinod was the Works Manager of Lakshmi Engineering. Rahul was with the company as its Finance Manager and was heading the Accounts and Finance division. Rahul was reporting to the works manager directly. Rahul's general attitude was to be tight fisted in matters of finance. He was always conscious of the need to conform to company policies and procedures. He firmly opposed any deviation from policy, but was often willing to explain the reasons for his view. He prided himself as a man of principles. Vinod was a person who wanted to take action regardless of past practice or policy. He considered himself a 'resulted-oriented' manager. The differing attitudes of the works manager and the finance manager had led to conflicts on past occasions. 

Vinod had even warned Rahul on two occasions that if Rahul could not carry out his instructions he was free to search for a job elsewhere. Rahul argued his case with a measure of success stating that his approach was proper and that in financial matters the policy guidelines had to be observed. One afternoon, Vinod approached Rahul and said, 'Here is an incentive plan for the maintenance group. I am notifying it today and introducing it from tomorrow. Have a look at it.' Rahul appeared to be surprised. He had not known that an incentive plan was being contemplated for maintenance workers, as the company's policy till then was to pay incentives only to direct production workers. Nevertheless, he took the plan with him and returned to Vinod a couple of hours later. 'You can't introduce this plan straightaway', Rahul said to Vinod and added, 'we have to give this some more thought. Our maintenance costs are too high mainly due to lack of adherence to norms on the consumption of spare parts. This incentive plan gives no weightage to consumption of spare parts. Further, it will only add to the maintenance costs without any real benefits to the company.' 

Vinod's reaction was one of anger. 'You understand nothing of incentive plans', he retorted and added, 'spare parts consumption is high due to poor quality of spares bought by the materials department. Anyway, I don't intend to waste time on this with you. I am notifying this incentive plan today.' An altercation followed and the arguments of both Rahul and Vinod became so loud that it attracted the attention of others in the hall, outside Vinod's office. 'I am the boss here,' screamed Vinod adding, 'if you can't work with me and obey my instructions, you are free to leave your job and go elsewhere.' A few moments later Rahul was back in his office, tired and sullen. He called in his secretary and said, 'No, I have no option, please write down.' He dictated his letter of resignation.

Knowing about the resignation of rahul, HR Head also thought of meeting and discussing the matter with Vinod. He was not happy the way scene was created in the organization and impact on other managers.

Questions for discussions and solutions:

1. Discuss the leadership style used by Vinod? How effective is his style? What changes would you advise?

Vinod was the Works Manager at Lakshmi Engineering and had Rahul who was heading the Accounts & Finance division reporting to him. The working style of Vinod was ‘results-oriented’ or rather ‘execution’, ‘just do it’ irrespective of the scenario or the situation. Vinod was a delivery type person who just wanted work to happen & results. Whereas Rahul being a Finance person was more conservative & pragmatic in his approach. Since Rahul was heading Finance, he was conscious of the need of being controls – oriented in terms of cost and savings for the company and also that work has to be done as per companies policies and procedures because any lapse or error on part of Finance could result into financial loss for Lakshmi Engineering.

Hence what we see in the above scenario are two different personality styles person’s working together in a subordinate-boss relationship. Rahul who would like to apply thought to his work, why is it being done, what resultant benefit it will lead into whereas Vinod who just wanted the work to be carried out irrespective of the outcome. Vinod’s approach was such that if at all any problems arise as a result of his actions, it will be dealt with later. Vinod approach’s was so aggressive that he was even willing to fire somebody if he found that his instructions were not complied with which happened in the case with Rahul when he refused to carry out the proposed incentive plan for maintenance group from Vinod. Rahul found some loopholes in the incentive plan and being a finance person felt it should not be implemented before being rectified.

This led to a loud altercation between Vinod and Rahul such that it attracted the attention of others outside Vinod’s office and with Vinod firmly telling Rahul to go look for a job elsewhere if he were not to comply with his instructions. Rahul who has drained of energy after needlessly arguing with Vinod, tired & sullen, decided to hand over his resignation letter finding it now impossible to work with Vinod. He felt that it was no time investing energy over someone who was never going to listen and will only have things his way.  

Vinod should introspect his working style and the impact that his behavior is having on others. It is good to be focused, aggressive in your work approach and be execution-oriented but not be that demanding that if things don’t go his way, then he should shout at people, get into conflicts with colleagues with the result that they leave the organization. There is a very old saying ‘People don’t leave companies, but bad bosses’. This is exactly what has happened between Vinod & Rahul. 

Vinod should realize that his results-oriented working style is good at Production & Maintenance workers level where speed, efficiency and results-delivery matter but when dealing with senior colleagues especially with those reporting to him, the same working style approach will not work. The approach has to be different. Vinod should realize that he is at a Managerial level and he has other Managers also reporting to him. How he handles them as a team will determine the effectiveness of his Managerial skills. Over a period of time, as one seeks to move up the organizational ladder, it is these soft skills, people-handling skills that matter and not the technical one’s. 

Vinod should take Rahul into confidence and ask him that if he has any problem working with him, he should speak out rather than keeping silent about it. Vinod should also regularly assess his working style and seek to improve upon his areas based upon feedback as necessary. It is here that the role of HR is very important in regularly providing Leadership / Managerial skills effectiveness feedback to all concerned and seeking to improve upon the same. Vinod should realize that if he doesn’t understand the consequences of his behavior, the impact it is having upon others, soon it’ll be very difficult for others to work under him. Word will spread out and Vinod as well as Lakshmi Engineering will have difficulty in attracting the right talent to work with them. Rahul will leave and he will get another job, but what about Vinod & Lakshmi Engineering. They will be left to find Rahul’s replacement and who knows that the same scenario may not repeat again unless and until some corrective measures are undertaken.

2. To what extent were Rahul’s needs being considered? What kind of organizational climate was created?

The organizational climate created was that of command & authority. Vinod wanted things to work his way, follow his orders. He disliked those who dared not to obey him. And often, he told his subordinates to go look for a job elsewhere if they disliked following his instructions. Very often, it lead to conflicting scenario’s between Vinod & Rahul whose working styles were different. This does not augur well for Lakshmi Engineering. Very soon the same scenario can spread to other departments also. Vinod will be creating a negative impression for himself as well as for those working with him. Vinod should be a team player. He must take his team into confidence and share his vision with the team about how he wants the work to be accomplished. And then leave the team to accomplish it. A good team member will have the ability to execute the Manager’s vision which was the case with Rahul.

Rahul was competent enough as a Finance Manager. Infact Rahul was brave enough to point out flaws in the proposed incentive plan by Vinod for the Maintenance team which not many reportee’s would do so for the fear of displeasing their boss. This characteristic of Rahul augured well for Lakshmi Engineering as an organization. Probably this is what the HR Manager also felt and hence intervened. He felt the need to speak to both Vinod & Rahul to resolve their differences and get them to work together amicably once again. The HR Manager also knew the impact of Rahul’s resignation have on other manager’s, how they would be feeling and the kind of negativity that can spread. It was also very important for Lakshmi Engineering as an organization that one person’s dominance should not spread across the entire organization. Too much dependency on one person’s instructions is not good. There should be teamwork. Hence Rahul’s needs were being considered and all efforts were being made to pacify him and take back his resignation. 

3. What HR head should discuss with Vinod and correction measures to be undertaken to control the damage?

The HR Head at Lakshmi Engineering should have a one on one meeting with Vinod. He must explain him the scene that has been created within the office due to his altercation with Rahul. The HR Head should confront the situation with Vinod of Rahul, give specific examples when he crossed the line. And the impact it is having of the office environment on others. HR Head should also emphasize to Vinod on the need to change his managerial style – It’s My Way or The Highway. This will not work. Employees need to feel a sense of belonging to the workplace. Their contribution and inputs also need to be valued. Or else they will feel disconnected and disengaged from work. The workplace is a dynamic place with many differing personalities all needing to work together. It is not uncommon that two people just don’t click or that personality clashes will occur.

Vinod needs to be positive and respectful of the people working under him. He needs to pass on the message that he is not here to disrespect the working style of others. Vinod should rather encourage the good work being done with praise. It is easy to criticize others and criticism often leads to resentment & hostile feelings which in this case was building up between Vinod & Rahul that finally led to the tumultuous situation of Rahul tendering his resignation. Proactive praising is much more effective than reactive criticisms. This will also encourage the subordinates working under Vinod to open up and work more efficiently and productively. They will feel the ease of pressure of working rather than working in constant fear of criticism. This will also encourage teamwork & improved workplace co-ordination. 

Vinod & Rahul both need to be positive and to be constructive. Focus on the problem and not the person. They should focus on how to work together. Still if things don’t work out between Vinod & Rahul or has got to the boiling point, the HR Head should look at an internal transfer for Rahul within the organization. Resigning from the current position and leaving the company is not the solution. This will also send out a strong positive message by the HR that the company cares about its employees, values them & wishes to retain them as much as possible.