When I was living in London, I spent a little over a year running a computer centre for the poor that was located on a large social housing estate there. We had a very nice internet cafe, we taught computer literacy courses for kids and adults and helped people out with problems with immigration, bills and the other myriad problems that life seems to dish out disproportionately to the poor. Part of my job also was fund raising. I never enjoyed that part but it gave me some time and cause to think about corporate responsibility and corporate social responsibility. I was reminded of this topic by a front page article in the Hindustan Times on Friday on a speech given by Prime Minister of India Manmohan Singh in which he laid out “Ten Commandments for Industry” here in India. I have to admit that I’m weirded-out by the idea of a Sikh in a mostly Hindu country using a reference from the Jewish Bible to talk about corporate responsibility but I applaud the notion and I think we in the BPO business would do well to pay attention to it. Here is the list as printed in the paper (click for a full-size version):
I can’t find fault with a single one of these instructions and they seem to me to be entirely appropriate for businesses located anywhere on this flat earth, not just India. I think I would like to talk about each of these at some point, but in this entry I think I’ll just mention the first, “Respect workers and invest in their welfare”.
In Christianity we are taught that the First Commandment, love God with all your heart, soul and mind, is the “Great Commandment”. I will assume that Mr. Singh made respecting workers and investing in their welfare his first commandment on the merit of its relative importance as well and how could there be any more important advice for the call centre business? The organisation I work for has around 8,000 agents, no doubt by this time next month there could be 10,000 and so it goes. If there is anyone in the people business it’s us, just ask our HR department. With so many people in our charge, it is fair to ask what our responsibility to them is and also what is our responsibility to this country, its growth and its welfare.
We’ll get to the commandments that have to do with how a company should interact with the external world at a later point, but the way we treat our employees is the first place where we have an opportunity to give something back to this society and at the same time make this a better place for ourselves (I see nothing wrong with a little self-interest in acts of goodness). For those who enjoy hiking, trekking and exploring the wilderness and outdoors, there is a sort of axiom that says, “leave it better than you found it”. It means, for example, that in addition to not leaving your litter behind, when you see someone else has, pick it up so the place is a little nicer and more natural for the next person. Singh’s first commandment, I think, applies this same notion to the thousands of students and young people that work for us (I apologise for the comparison with litter, try and look past it :-). These are the future of India and will bring about great social and economic change as they mature. They won’t work for us long; we hope at least a year or two or three even if we are lucky. But even if is just for a few months, it is our responsibility to add to their skills, add to their understanding of business and add to their maturity as employees and part of “India Inc”. Might they use those skills for our competitors, yes. But they might also use them for our suppliers, our customers or our government who need all the good people and help they can get. And so we benefit too.
There is an even more direct reason why we should be proactively investing in our staff – it’s good for our business. In real estate they say the 3 most important things are location, location and location; in BPOs and Call Centres the three most important things are retention, retention and retention. Why do people stay and why do people go? Well, that’s a complex question but I propose that a huge part of it is whether they perceive they are growing, being challenged and engaged. I’ll further propose that it’s more important than their pay packet. I absolutely know that’s the case for me and for many of the best managers and executives I know. If we invest in our staff, they will repay us by staying with us, it’s like loyalty only more practical.
OK, that’s all on this for now. I would love to be provoked into a discussion about why we should invest in our people just because it’s the right thing to do.