Diversity: honeymoon lessons in HR

There’s nothing that says “Welcome to our country” like rioting townsfolk, flaming tyres and burned-out buses blocking the roads. However, this was the scene that welcomed my brand new wife and I to India as we touched down in Delhi to begin our honeymoon.

Try as you might, it’s impossible to get away from people management issues. In this case, the big problem was that age-old foe ‘positive discrimination’. The riots were over India’s ‘reservation’ system. This is an attempt to overcome the deep-rooted prejudices of the caste system in India. Stop me if you know this, but there still exists a very complicated social hierarchy in India, with the Brahman (priest class) at the top, and the Harijan – or untouchables – at the bottom. These groups are then subdivided into 2,500 or so subgroups, making the whole thing fairly incomprehensible to outsiders.

Backward thinking

What is clear is it is deeply discriminatory. If you’re at the bottom, it’s very likely you’ll stay there. In an attempt to right this wrong, the government created the reservation scheme, which means a certain proportion of government jobs are reserved for those from lower castes. Nice idea in theory, but it also provides an all-too-graphic illustration of how nasty things can get when you attempt positive discrimination.

To start with, the system has, in parts, been hijacked by politicians as a vote winner.

In one region, reservation is at 60% elsewhere it’s about one in three. So in some cases, a majority of public servants are chosen on social background, and not on their actual abilities. This not only causes serious performance issues in the civil service it means people who have trained for years for a role can’t get the job they’ve trained for. It also means “the seeds of resentment have been sown”, in the words of the rioters, speaking in a national news broadcast.

So we faced the bizarre situation where the Gujjars (a higher caste group) had decided to protest against the fact that they were not entitled to reservation status. As our guide explained: “They are fighting to be recognised as more backwards than they are” (and hence be entitled to preferential treatment). It is a graphic example to proponents of positive discrimination of how easily it breeds resentment.

Once the roads were clear and we could get about, the people management barrage continued, albeit in a far more positive way. The great irony was that the examples of best practice weren’t from the 21st century, but from a Mughal Emperor more than 500 years ago.

Where there’s Mughal…

The Mughals arrived in India in the early 16th century and gradually made it their own. However, they knew the value of good people management and, rather than trying to crush the local princes, they left them in post in return for regular payments and their loyalty. In other words, they empowered and trusted their line managers.

This system worked a treat until later Emperors Shahjahan and Aurangzeb decided to be a bit more command and control, which “fatally overstretched” the Mughal empire, according to British historian William Dalrymple in his book White Mughals.

Another particularly pertinent lesson for our modern world was the Mughals’ amazing tolerance and inclusion. For example, despite being Muslim, the third emperor, Akbar, took three wives: one Muslim, one Hindu and one Christian. This way all the region’s major stakeholders felt they had representation.

But Akbar didn’t stop there. At his capital of Fatepur Sikri, he built palaces for each of these wives. The biggest one by far was that of his Hindu wife, even though she was technically inferior to his Muslim one. Why? Because she gave him a son, and he made it clear to one and all that because she’d hit her targets she was to be suitably rewarded, regardless of her status. Now that’s good performance management and an effective system of reward.

Missing the point…

Fast forward to the 19th century, and the British were choosing to ignore these lessons. We chose exclusion and intolerance of other cultures instead. This led to growing discontent and eventually led to the Indian Mutiny in 1857.

But this was not all about the British strutting about like they owned the place there is plenty of evidence to show that poor pay and prospects was as much a spark as anything else. Indian soldiers hadn’t really had a pay rise in 50 years and they had little chance of promotion either, because advancement was based on time served and not merit. The mutiny was a perfect chance for those who saw upheaval as an opportunity for quick advancement.

Back in Blighty, it strikes me that our needs haven’t really changed that much over the years, and it’s amazing how a 16th century emperor like Akbar could be more tuned into HR 500 years ago than some organisations are now.

Do you agree with Michael? Or is he wide of the mark? E-mail your comments to personneltoday@rbi.co.uk

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