India recently witnessed one of its worst fears unfolding with threats and rumor mongering leading to an exodus of a community from cities. Some anti-social elements spread rumors and threatened sections of a community via social media and short-service message service. The fear created an uneasy feeling across the nation and by the time leaders took stock of the situation misunderstandings surfaced and cities faced labor shortages overnight.
This episode throws many questions not just about the erosion of multi-cultural sensitivities that the country prides itself on but also on what can prevent such crises in the future. Furthermore, what can internal communicators and leaders do more to maintain harmony and propagate tolerance at the workplace?
For some back story. For many the North-East of India is a place too cumbersome to access or too remote to be bothered about. The contributions of these eight states that comprise this part of India are underestimated. This part of India has contributed to the country’s success in equal measure and also by their hard working nature although they have often faced discrimination and taunts just because of their Mongoloid features. Some noteworthy leaders from the North-East include the former police chief at Bangalore and a current Member of Parliament – H. T. Sangliana, the country’s best known soccer player – Baichung Bhutia, the former Election Commissioner and a man known to be direct and honest – James Lyngdoh and our own pocket sized Olympic boxing winner – Mary Kom.
It began with unprecedented communal violence in Assam and triggered protests in other states leading to unrest. Then some North-East people received threats directly and via social media vehicles to their lives and fled from cities such as Bangalore, Chennai, Hyderabad and Pune where they had come to earn a livelihood, study or start a business. These cities which boast a cosmopolitan outlook had leaders rushing to railway stations to prevent a flood of people from exiting. For many this was probably the first time they witnessed leaders at close quarters – even within handshaking distance! None of their assurance prevented people from leaving in droves.
Credibility among leaders at the workplace isn’t faring too well either and leaders who don’t show up often or listen to staff end up losing their grip on employee engagement when it is needed most. Leaders need to walk the talk and staff can figure out when they aren’t sincere.
By the time leaders took note of the seriousness of the issue the trickle had become a flood. The country grappled for many days figuring out how messages were sent and verifying the authenticity of the videos which carried inflammatory content. It took a lot of coaxing and directives from the central government for the exodus to slow down and despite numerous measures to ensure safety of the North-East people such as flag marches by security forces, community processions by leaders and patrolling by vigilante groups uneasiness stayed. Steps were taken to block bulk sms services and ban websites which featured videos.
Understanding systems and new technologies is vital to staying ahead on the information highway and avoiding lapses in communication. Grapevine is an important channel in organizations although many don’t consider it crucial to listen into. Having a pulse of what your staff thinks and how they act can allow you to proactively plan your interventions. Invest is ‘social listening’ on discussion forums and internal networks to gauge the mood.
While leaders jostled with each other to be the ‘first’ to help the people impacted it turned out that their past actions caught up with their current interests. Many parties who had certain affiliations to organizations that promoted communal disharmony and discrimination joined in the melee. The language they used in their public demonstrations and announcements and the partners they mollycoddled with gave away their true intentions. Everyone claimed to be secular but their words weren’t aligned to their actions. Now, impacted people saw through their motives and didn’t pay heed to their requests.
For leaders in organizations it matters what you say and how closely your actions align. For example, leaders who allow conversations to take place among colleagues in their native languages are brewing communal disharmony without even realizing it. If English is the official language spoken in your organization, then everyone must stick to it. Also, being inconsiderate to staff of certain regions or pigeonholing career options with certain communities adds fuel to fire at the workplace. Sidelining specific communities while dividing work in teams and publically misrepresenting information related to certain religions can create rifts. The Maruti episode is a case in point where a caste slur made about an employee’s caste leading to misunderstanding between management and staff. A probe however discounts that angle.
Many organizations in India who employed staff from the North-East were faced with a crisis when they didn’t show up for work fearing reprisals. The government took measures to slow the spread of hate messages via social media channels by reducing bulk sms limits and blocking websites. However, those were seen as reactive measures. How must organizations handle queries related to issues concerning community tolerance? What can organizations do to reassure staff of their safety? How can internal communicators ensure that leaders communicate accurately, messages are honest and staff feels that they are cared for? There isn’t one single solution or answer.
The first issue is to take stock of what the situation means to staff. Organizations to begin must first be aware of their staffs’ diversity. Shutting down channels that staff uses to air views isn’t appropriate and can do more harm than good for morale and the message. Promptly reconfirm the safety of all staff and have managers be flexible to them taking time off from work or work remotely till the situation improves. The organization can ‘listen’ to chatter about the subject and reassure staff on actions they are taking – monitoring the situation using relevant channels and sources (police, government bodies, ministers), sharing police helplines to report trouble and being approachable and available. I came across this interesting discussion on Linkedin about ‘fostering cultural harmony’. Leaders need to be primed about social integration and their role in using neutral language in their communication. Be sensitive to all communities and if you plan to celebrate one festival they demonstrate equal commitment to include the other festivals. Or have a common forum or platform for all communities to come together.
It isn’t enough for organizations to run ‘potlucks’ with regional cuisine, promote cultural events showcasing diversity, craft ‘inclusive’ policies or claim to be ‘equal opportunity employers’. The words you speak and the actions you take with sincerity all add up to your credibility as a sensitive workplace and employer. And it begins with leadership.
While the land of ‘ahimsa’ (non-violence) comes to terms with this communal tension the Scorpions hit number ‘Under the Same Sun’ comes to mind as they grapple with ‘why the world can’t live as one’.
I am interested in your thoughts on what you think can be done more to build communal harmony at the workplace.