Keep an eye on the potential regression from selflessness to selfishness

Cliffe Dekker Hofmeyr's Aadil Patel says the employment relationship is currently marred by a trust deficit because, over the last month, parties have moved from becoming selfless to selfish.

As Covid-19 drags on and a changing world becomes our reality, the CHRO SA Community Conversations have remained a great platform for HR leaders to come together. Sponsored by Workday, these sessions give executives an opportunity to ask each other questions, exchange ideas, and compare notes of what it's like to be in charge of the people agenda of your organisation during such crazy times.

This week, Cliffe Dekker Hofmeyr's employment practice head Aadil Patel led the discussion, which focused on why there has been a regression in many workplaces from a period of selflessness into a period of selfishness a trust deficit emerging; and how HR leaders can manage and inspire an anxious workforce that is tired of making sacrifices that are increasingly starting to look out for their own personal interest.

“When President Ramaphosa announced the national lockdown, citizens applauded him and workplaces came together;  there was a spirit of togetherness,” said Aadil. “Never in all my years had I seen a level of trust between employers and employees as we saw towards the end of March and the first two weeks of April. Employers always trusted employees to work from home and expected them to be at their desk. During this period of uncertainty, employees' financial survival was dependent on employers and, as a result, they made extra effort to comply with even the most draconian of expectations.”

Trust deficit

But the levels of trust have slowly dissipated. Some employees were unable to grasp how to work remotely because they had household chores to contend with, as well as children and home-schooling which added to add to the mix of so-called distractions.

While they may have wanted to be empathetic, employers still have businesses to run and thus began the transition from selflessness to selfishness that was attributable to a growing trust deficit in workplaces. Employers began to default. They were not equipped with dealing with remote workers so they began micromanaging employees and expected them to be online all the time.

Aadil said he saw many similarities to the 2007/2008 global financial recession in that some employers have seen the economic downturn as an opportunity to get rid of non-performers.

“There is nothing wrong with embarking on retrenchment processes in the pursuit of profitability. But if that is the path that companies choose to follow, the leaders within those organisations cannot turn around and condemn the selfishness and trust deficit within their workforces. We must understand that trust goes both ways,” said Aadil.

 

We didn’t listen to the millennials

From an employee perspective, selfishness began to creep in when they saw being home as an opportunity to "take a break" from work. This, he said, was understandable given that they had to manage their children's schooling, home chores, and were dealing with a heightened sense of anxiety surrounding what soon became a pandemic.

Aadil said that, even though they may have contemplated the idea of remote working, employers have failed to equip managers with the tools necessary to manage people working from home. He said he had recently done a matchbook survey in which 40 percent of the people he spoke to would rather go back to the office instead of continuing to bear the level of micromanagement they have had to endure while working remotely.

Said Aadil: “The was a sudden scurry for technology that would be implemented, not to make employees lives easier, but simply to monitor their performance - that is, checking the times that people log in and out - instead of checking whether there had been true deliverables. Millennials have been telling us, over and over again that they want to be measured, not according to their physical presence, but according to their output. We have failed heed to their advice because we have not effectively prepared for this type of situation, despite having years' notice of the changes to the nature of the workplace. We only have ourselves to blame for being unprepared.”

Decriminalise disciplinary procedures

From an employee side, Aadil said some employees began to abuse policies and processes that their organisations had put in place to deal with Covid-19, such as presenting fake sick notes and refusing to come to work despite the many safety measures placed by employers. Others would say they had put themselves in quarantine because they had been in contact with someone that tested positive for the virus in order to get time off.

But when the time comes for instituting misconduct and disciplinary action to deal with such behaviours, Aadil said companies needed to reform their approach to discipline to deal with this new world.  

“How do we deal with misconduct and underperformance at a time when we cannot hold formal disciplinary hearings because employees can refuse to attend and cannot be forced to use their own laptop or internet connection? We need something that's agile, flexible and quick,” he said, adding that the Labour Relations Act does not stipulate any requirement for companies to hold formal criminal-trial-style disciplinary processes. This, Aadil said, was merely something that many HR practitioners had become accustomed to doing even though it is time-consuming, laborious, and expensive.

Aadil suggested that employers should rather do an internal investigation, and write to the employee inviting them to provide a written submission that should be taken into consideration. That way, they will still be abiding by the fairness principle of allowing employees to be heard. This will allow us to expeditiously deal with discipline and performance during this new working world and the emergence of different forms of misconduct.