HR Pros Tutored in Goodness to Break Bad

Managers being taught how to deal with employees in times of slowdow

Last week, Indore-based Neeraj Kapoor, senior branch manager at Panasonic India, was part of a business leadership development programme in Bangalore. It was unlike any other training the 34-year-old has undergone in almost three years at Panasonic. The training taught him, among other things, how to be a bearer of bad news and how to deal with people while doing that. “I learnt that in bad times, I inform the person about the current scenario, and why the company may not be giving an immediate salary hike or promotion,” says Kapoor. “At the same time, I outline prospects, both for employees and the company, and what they can expect if they stay on during a crisis.” Increasingly, companies are training managers like Kapoor, harbingers of bad news during performance appraisals, to soften the blow for employees, especially in a bad economy, where pay hikes are low and promotions few. Aegis, Angel Broking, Mahindra Satyam, Panasonic, RPG Group and Standard Chartered Bank are some companies proactively trying to address this predicament by training managers to be the messenger who does not get killed.
So, for instance, the RPG Group is showing its line managers the utility of objective data and non-monetary benefits while engaging with the employees. Elsewhere, Mahindra Satyam is breeding empathy among them, and Panasonic and Standard Chartered Bank are priming them to have more frequent and more meaningful conversations. Take Time to Prepare for Difficult Conversations
“The advice to line managers is to take time to prepare for difficult conversations, keep data ready and, at the same time, ensure the person is treated with respect,” says Madhvi Lall, head-HR (India & South Asia), StanChart.
Next month, an external coach will train Arvind Seth (name changed) on how to tell his team that there will be no incentives, bonus or increments this year, and on how to let go of a worker. Seth became a manager in the marketing team at Ceat, an RPG Group company, in 2011, and has three people reporting to him. But he has no experience in dealing with such issues. “In this volatility, I need to know how to deal with these issues as I am sure I will face them frequently,” says Seth, who has spent five years in Ceat.
Seth’s training is part of something called the ‘crucial accountability programme’ at the group where seniors are taught to be more “dispassionate and separate the person from the job”. It trains managers to use statistics to break bad news to employees and hold non-performers accountable, says Amit Das, senior vice-president (group HR), at RPG Enterprises.
So, 3,000 group managers will be asked to keep logbooks to record the performance of their juniors, which can be used as supporting data while delivering unpleasant news. “They will be trained to stick to the specific topic, and not get personal or emotional,” adds Das.
Angel Broking is another company prescribing objectivity over subjectivity in such difficult conversations. In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, the brokerage firm was showing dos and don’ts to its managers via videos of simulated manager-employee conversations. Over the past year, though, Angel has done away with situations that can cause a conflict between an employee and a manager.
Instead, it now charts performance data for each employee: number of accounts acquired, revenue generated, credits received, and the employee’s city, state and zonal rankings. “This chart goes to them every month,” says Dhruv Desai, senior VP (HR & leadership academy), Angel Broking. “During appraisals, there is no need for a further discussion on performance.”
Layoffs are extreme situations. More than layoffs, managers are being asked to retain performers in the absence of financial incentives. So, RPG is trainings its managers to focus on non-monetary benefits: for example, retain performers by showing them the benefits of undertaking company-sponsored programmes in alliance with the London School of Business and the Kellogg School of Management, or other learning and development training modules.
Managers are also being asked to raise the game of under-performing employees without fostering insecurity. In the past 18 months, leaders in Mahindra Satyam have undergone trainings to instil greater empathy in them. Devdutta Sarma, the company’s head for performance and reward management, has himself learnt a few lessons.
“Earlier, if someone did not perform, I would have been more vocal and asked them to buckle up their belts,” he says. “But now, I will have to sugarcoat my words.”
Sarma says this is necessary, especially during a bad economy, to reduce anxiety among employees who might not be performing well. “We cannot afford to lose people,” he adds. “By being ruthless, we will make them more worried about their deliverables and ultimately lose our market share.”
According to Prashant Deo Singh of Panasonic India, the problem happens when managers suddenly communicate ‘bad news’ to employees, or communicate only when there is negative news about the company, sector or economy. In a bid to change that, about a year ago, Panasonic started updating its employees on a monthly basis on business performance, overall economic scenario, people performance, and process- and customer-related challenges.
“This keeps employees aligned with how we are doing as a company in the overall business economic scenario and how is his/her contribution impacting company’s performance,” says Singh, head (HR and general affairs).
Nandan Savnal, managing director of consulting and training firm PeopleSys, seconds this approach. He says if an employee has done well, but the organisation has not, it is imperative the company delivers the bad news well and does not leave the entire job to the line manager.
For the past two years, Panasonic has also been training its managers on how to review, give and receive feedback, and appreciate and deliver bad news. Panasonic has segmented its managers into two sets: those who ‘manage others’ and those who ‘manage managers’. For the first lot, the training emphasis is on improving communication with their teams. For the senior lot, the focus of the training is on the dynamics of communication, and how to use emotions and make it impactful, among other things.
Elsewhere, StanChart has given its managers a toolkit called ‘conversations that count’, which contains guidelines on how to work around reviews in tough times. Manish Gupta, area director (east), recalls one such intervention.
A top-performing relationship manager was not meeting the bank’s expectations in his new role as a branch manager, an impression he possibly did not share. Rather than wait for the formal half-year review, Gupta had a number of feedback-oriented conversations, formal and informal, with the branch manager.

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