Monday, November 20, 2006

Let them leave

Nirav Mehta loses two programmers without notice to L10NBridge (yes, that's a name), whose Human Resources (HR) person, when told about it, felt no remorse and threatened to hire the rest of Nirav's QA team with him (Nirav) helpless to do anything about it. Further, a request for action to be taken against the errant ex-employees was refused.

Nirav's rant is that:
a) Employees shouldn't sell their soul. Values matter more than money.
b) Lionbridge shouldn't have bought their soul. If you force employees to break contracts, what example are you setting?

Well, comments have flown back and forth and Vulturo has posted in detail that:
a) The blame is squarely on Nirav for not retaining his employees.
b) Employees aren't slaves, and they should be allowed to buy their way out of a notice period.
c) Money's a big factor. If you can't afford to match or beat the industry standards, it's your problem.
d) Nirav shouldn't be demanding explanations from LionBridge. They're just doing their job.

I think there are two definite aspects to this. The first one is an ethical dilemma: Should people just quit for the heck of it, without proper notice? And the second one is: If they do, shouldn't the hiring company be adamant that they complete their notice period, and get relieved properly?

This would not be a complex answer but for the "asshole employers" that dot the marketplace. The disappointment at losing key personell grows to resentment and vengeance is extracted, too often, by delaying relieving letters, not paying dues properly, and creating arbitrary hurdles to a smooth exit.

Would you buy a computer today if Microsoft told you that before you load Linux on that machine you would have to get a court approval to do so? Would you enter a shop that refused to let you leave unless you bought something?

Creating barriers to exit is a downright stupid thing to do, and employees are nothing less than your customers. You have to make it easy for people to leave, and perhaps even help them when they resign; it's not extremely difficult. Discuss it openly at company meetings: If anyone is looking for a job, let them talk about it. Organise farewell parties in the office for all those that decide to leave; not on the last day, but just after they resign. Stretch the notice rules; transition can always be worked out separately. Always tell them, "Look, if for any reason you don't like it there, come right back. We'll just forget this happened". Keep it simple, your paths may (and most likely, will) cross later.

If that is in place, your employees will want to be nice about it. Of course you have the bummers who won't, but you don't want them in your company anyway. (Give them that farewell party though)

Note here that I'm not saying Nirav made it difficult for his employees to leave. He does say that his company tries to treat employees like family - unfortunately a family position is much more difficult to sustain. The ability to separate gracefully is rare in Indian families; why would the soapy tear-jerkers (movies and TV) make so much money otherwise? So your employees are bound to dither and feel ashamed when they wanted to leave; and for as small a thing as money. It's not small, is it?

Now, should the new company be wary of have-not-properly-exited hires? They should, but even they are aware of the "asshole employers" concept. Also, HR targets are to get the best people as soon as possible, and that links directly to rewards. And finally, if they don't have the integrity, what can you do about it?

You definitely can't - or shouldn't - call and berate them. An email perhaps, if you can make it sound non-vindictive and helpful, but definitely not a phone call. They should be the ones calling you for a reference, but if they don't, you will not make matters any better by calling them. The exception here is if you know someone high enough at a personal level.

And most importantly, if you expect relieving letters and notice periods served etc., expect the same when you hire. I've noticed that often, in small and big companies, HR expects you to join "today, or potentially, yesterday", but will try to enforce a notice period when you leave. Chances are that will not be taken kindly.

While employers can't force a notice period down a person's throat, there are necessary approvals that they can withhold: Like a PF transfer form signature, or encashment of leave etc. It's illegal to withhold them, but relief is only possible through a civil suit, an option most people are loathe to use.

The question of references comes in often: Should you check references? Well, if you don't, then expect that people will leave you high and dry at the worst time possible; after all, you may hire someone who hasn't been as kind to her last employer. Should you give references? Only to those who were nice in leaving, and that you want to recommend. The lack of a positive reference is equivalent to a negative one, so you don't need to write a negative word in a reference. (In India, you can legally give a negative reference)

Oh and I forget about Bonds: companies routinely make employees sign bonds that they won't leave before X years, or else they pay Y money back. The justification is that this is training money spent; If so, I say take the money upfront. Return it once they complete X years. Suddenly the option doesn't sound all that great right? If you take money upfront you must train properly, and give a real certificate that means something to the employee. In most of the "bond" cases, none of that is happening. Bonds add no value, they only take away the trust in the relationship. Once you've lost the trust, no amount of legal threats etc. will bring it back to normal.

Lots of people think that such abrupt departures with no notice and SMS "break-ups" are bad for the industry in the long term. They are not. In fact, they build better businesses. The ability for your lousy employees to leave by just sending you an SMS is the best thing that can happen to you.

If you do not understand, let me tell you this. Marriages are better when the option to divorce is available. Cars are better if the only color you can choose is not black. Business are better if they can fire as well as they can hire. Online buying is better because there is no customs department involved.

The ability for employees to get up and leave in whatever manner they choose affords you the knowledge of who chooses to leave nicely and who does not. And in the same vein, to do whatever you can to keep those that goes the extra mile to keep it courteous.


Anonymous said...

Hi Deepak,

All your posts (including this one) are a great read for anyone wishing to be an entrepreneur or anyone else working in the softwarei ndustry. I enjoy reading your posts and sometimes it makes me wish that I was working for an entrepreneur like you. However, lot of things in life, are easier said than done and may or may not work practically in real life . This post of yours is utopic to an extent and probably manageable in a small firm, but may not be viable in a large organization where processes are required to sustain and grow the company.
Still, it's great that entrepreneurs like you think and write the way you do - keep up the good work!!! Your blog makes me feel that there is still hope in this industry :-)

Anonymous said...

Just to add to my comment above, I agree completely with Vulturo's your analysis of the situation.
"Make the employees feel at home, make them feel that they 'belong' to the organization, make them feel that it is their organization as much as it is yours. That's the mantra to retaining employees!!!

Deepak Shenoy said...

Anonymous: Nothing I mentioned denies or impedes a process. Openness can exist in the largest of organisations, like Microsoft and Google. In fact, GE has a lot more openness in terms of people leaving!

Processes are means to an end. If your end goal is to foster openness you can make your processes work for that. Remember, when one thinks something "is not possible in practise or real life" , it means that one is not willing to make the necessary effort; no one thought Semler could have pulled it off, he did. And so did Ford.

me@me said...

Most of these tall and big organizations do not have touch with reality. They are living in some other world. Indians making tougher for indians. If you look at IT companies in India, most of thems's HR dept sucks. It is really disgusting experience with them. 3 months notice period!!! are these guys crazy!!!. They themselves are not going to wait for someone for three months. I have pity on them. Best solution is: join small consulting organization and go back to these big fishes and eat them up. There is no benifit in working for these big companies whose HR is obsolete in terms of policies. They will not change. We have to change ourselves. Small consulting companies with higher pay is better option. All these big and tall companies are not good paymaster either now a days. I wonder why people are so hellbent on joining them anyways. You get less money, you get worst treatment from HR and your exit is not easy. Think again and again!!!