15 July, 2022

Time to end modern day slavery – bring in some empathy

Sampark Foundation | By Vineet Nayar

New age companies be it food, grocery or ride-share apps and some old age companies, especially in the services sector have mastered the art of exploiting workers, taking this to a completely new level, under the garb of creating employment. The creativity shown in exploiting employees, makes me wonder if they have started teaching “exploitation of employees” as a course in MBA schools. This despite enough research that prove that the biggest incentive that drives employee performance is empathy shown towards employees, which is visibly lacking in these companies in a hurry to get rich or should I say richer.

Workers are clocking 10-12 hours at low wages, with no employee benefits or job security. A Boston Consulting Group, study says that India’s ‘gig economy’ (freelance workers) has the potential to create 90 million jobs. Perhaps, it will but at what cost. Workers are exhausted, demotivated and would rather quit than continue. It hardly comes as a surprise that ultra-fast delivery apps are witnessing a high churn. It was inevitable, given the lack of sensitivity towards workers.

A study published in MIT Sloan Management Review, which looked at 34 million employee records, found that 3 of the top 5 reasons for resignations were related to lack of empathy towards employees. The high attrition you see in services sector such as the IT industry is a result of this trend. What we need is empathetic leadership and not the exploitative kind that we see today. In my opinion, there are three types of organizational leaders thriving in the exploitation of their employees.

Colonial Officers
The first set of leaders believe in not only paying their employees less but also in blaming them for poor services. Such leaders have found a way to exploit low-skilled employees, by not even calling them employees. App based cab service providers call them contractors. This by its very definition denies workers employee benefits and job security.

Overworking employees by giving them long shifts or no days off is another popular way of exploiting employees. Extra work at low wages, unreasonable deadlines, a delay in payment is all par-for-the-course for new-age companies. Sometimes, I wonder if such leaders took a crash course from the British colonial officers on how a few can exploit the many.

Productivity Crusaders
The second set of leaders that exploit are the productivity crusaders largely seen in the services sector, who want more from less. For them, data tells a story; humans don’t. They love to talk in percentages and an employee is just another number. They are great at making an employee feel less confident, so that they are forever under their control. These leaders have learned the art of control from “Hunger Games” and have successfully dehumanised their organisation, where employees emotionally drain, while the company counts its profits.

Smooth Talkers

The third set of leaders and by far the most dangerous are what I call smooth talkers. They have mastered the art of being dishonest but appear to be very honest and caring. They hear every employee and yet listen to none. They have fine-tuned the art of being like a hot knife through butter; you don’t feel it when you are cut to size. These leaders are in great demand as they project themselves as people who get stuff done and are very popular on social media, because they know what to say and when. For them, exploiting the emotions of an employee is an intellectually fulfilling game like the Game of Thrones.

It is an unfortunate truth of our times that the number of these three types of leaders are increasing, and we need to shine a spotlight on them, so that they know that we see them for what they are.

The urgent need for Empathetic Leadership

I believe that this exploitative model is not sustainable for employers or their employees. I have noticed all through my professional life that there is just one common denominator for success across all organisations, and that is motivated employees. If an organisation does not have motivated employees, no amount of investment in other resources can overcome this gap. On the other hand, if it has motivated employees, all other challenges seem surmountable.

Microsoft’s ‘Work Trend Index 2021;, rightly says that leaders are out of touch with their employees and need a reality check. The global workforce is very tired and 41% of them are considering leaving their current employers, within a year. Leadership is in a crisis today. We need empathetic leaders, who can create conditions for happiness, motivation and performance for employees. Research shows that empathy has a direct impact on an organisation’s success. It improves employee productivity, boosts growth, brings out the best in employees and improves an organisation’s reputation. A Randstad Workmonitor survey of employee sentiments reveals that over one-third of respondents consider working for a respected and caring employer as the most important consideration in their career decisions. Leaders should learn to deal with employees in a humane and compassionate manner.

I would like to think that there are still many leaders out there, who believe in investing, motivating and encouraging their employees to become their best versions. It is time we started celebrating them. It is these leaders, who make good organisations great and build to last rather than build to sell. Not only we need to put an end to this exploitation around us, but we also need to call it out, so that they know that we know what they are up to. The wisdom of the crowd was underestimated in our history and these leaders are underestimating the collective wisdom of the masses and their collective will to say no more to this exploitation. Let better sense prevail.